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Prisoners on the run amid Libya revolution chaos

By Sara Sidner, CNN
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Broken justice in Libya
  • 2,700 prisoners released by guards loyal to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi in February
  • Only 35 of the 2700 escapees have been re-incarcerated
  • 40 citizen police patrols in place in Benghazi

Benghazi, Libya (CNN) -- Abdul Aziz Abdullah walked into the room with his head hung low. His eyes stayed fixed on the floor when he began telling the story of how he killed his uncle.

There was a fight, he pulled a knife, he said he didn't mean to kill, but his uncle lay there dead.

He was sentenced to death by hanging, with the execution to take place in the main prison in Benghazi, Libya.

Three years into his sentence fate stepped in. War came to his city and along with it complete chaos.

On February 17th, when the rebellion began, prison officials say he was among the 2,700 prisoners released by guards loyal to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi in a move to unleash the most violent criminals on the citizens rising up against the government.

"There was chaos. They broke some doors to other cells. They stole cars and they started beating up some guards. They headed to the main door and tried to break out. They also burned prison documents. I couldn't believe what they did," Abdul Aziz Abdullah said.

With no police in place, there was no one to stop them. The entire city was a battle zone. Some of the prisoners ran away, some returned to a life of crime and others joined the fight at the front lines. That is where Abdullah went.

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But a few weeks after the opposition fighters won the battle, Abdullah received a letter from the justice system. He was identified as an escaped prisoner and asked to return to prison.

Unlike the vast majority of the escapees Abdullah turned himself him. He says he trusted he would be treated fairly by the opposition's fledgling justice system and is hoping for a gentler sentence.

"I felt that the new leadership in the city is honest and the call for surrender was genuine -- it is not like Gadhafi's time -- so I surrendered and I call upon others who escaped to do the prison to come back and try to resolve the cases with the families of the victims."

At the time of this article only 35 of the 2700 escapees had been re-incarcerated.

In the months following the opposition's victory over Gadhafi's militia, citizen patrols began trying to resolve disputes and police the streets.

"We are doing the best to rebuild our official security association," Jamal Benour, justice coordinator of the opposition council said.

He said there are about 40 citizen police patrols in place and their biggest obstacle to restoring law and order is the criminals who escaped from the main prison.

Other serious problems have also arisen: citizens thwarting the law while taking justice into their own hands.

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