BENGHAZI, Libya – Packed together in two holding cells in an eastern Libya courthouse, 20 men accused of fighting for Moammar Gadhafi looked disheveled and frightened Friday as a heavy, iron door opened.
They had reason to be.
Anti-Gadhafi forces said they had captured the men in their successful fight for control of Benghazi, the country's second-largest city, where mercenaries are being blamed for killing scores of protesters. Outside the building, three effigies were hanging from lampposts and flagpoles — all depicting mercenaries.
"If people knew they were up there, they would tear down the door," said Atif el-Hasiya, a spokesman for the local organizing committee, which has taken control of the area after security forces were ousted.
As it turned out, the jailed men were not mercenaries, according to Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch who met with them, but simply "ordinary African workers who got caught up in the middle of this chaos."
How to handle the cases presents a sensitive challenge for the city's new leaders in the days after they threw off the long and punishing rule of Gadhafi. Mercenaries have become particularly hated and feared figures during the revolt, both for their brutality and because they represent Gadhafi's ability to buy protection for himself in lieu of gaining genuine loyalty.
The New York-based human rights group says many mercenaries come from Chad, citing sources in both countries. The international advocacy group is pushing for a legal procedure to be followed in determining what happens next, but the process is still somewhat uncertain.
Bouckaert, HRW's emergencies director who is in Benghazi, said the Chadian consul to Libya had visited Thursday to discuss the treatment of prisoners from the central African nation.
Bouckaert described the fighters from Chad as men "who were not mercenaries specifically recruited to defend Gadhafi but members of (a Chadian) rebel movement Gadhafi has been funding and training for many years who would lose that support if he fell."
"The use of foreign fighters is really Gadhafi's last stand," he added.
It's also possible that African immigrants in the country for work or other reasons have been caught up in the sweeps targeting mercenaries as the young revolutionaries have seized control of several cities.
Gadhafi has long used fighters from other African countries to prop up his regime. But laborers from across the continent have also come to oil-rich Libya in search of work, or on the way to or from jobs — or the hope of jobs — in Europe.
Roland Marchal, a researcher at the national Center for Scientific Research at Sciences-Po in Paris, said that in a sparsely populated country fractured along tribal lines, Gadhafi would want outsiders both to bolster his forces and to ensure tribal loyalties did not undermine loyalty to him.
Many witnesses to the government's failed crackdown on protests described the government militia as including sub-Saharan Africans, and a brief visit with the accused mercenaries, included a group of detainees who seemed to be from farther south in Africa.
Bouckaert said he urged the prosecutor to release the men as soon as possible, but that may prove to be a problem.
"One of the difficulties is that they can't just release them into the streets," he said
In one of the rooms, where seven of the men were being held, the prisoners spoke English with a distinctly African accent. "It is very dangerous here, we are innocent," shouted one man who did not give his name. "We cannot express ourselves. We are here with our wives. We are not bad people."
All dressed in civilian clothes, the men described themselves as working in the area but didn't — and couldn't — give a greater accounting of themselves as local authorities, calling themselves prosecutors, yelled at them to be silent.
Thirteen Arabic-speaking men, who said they were from Libya, were being held in the other room. They, too, proclaimed their innocence. One, Mohammed al-Damawi, said he was "born in Benghazi." Another said he was from the southern city of Sabha.
Yet another whispered that he was from Tunisia, where some of the mercenaries have been said to come from. But the man, Asad Moudib, insisted that wasn't the case.
"I'm not a soldier," he said. "I was seized from the airport Saturday."
Paul Sullivan, an expert on North Africa at the National Defense University and Georgetown University, said that Gadhafi has long used mercenaries, both in his own security infrastructure and in the sense of funding and training many fighting groups and rebel organizations in West Africa and other places.
Mercenaries are "hired to kill and sow fear in many places and some of the worst and most vicious of them can be found in Africa. Gadhafi knows this and hardly has any moral limitations on their use," he said. "But this is a fluid situation and information is scarce in some of the more shadowy parts of all of this."
Associated Press writer Donna Bryson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.