BENGHAZI, Libya – The body found on the outskirts of Benghazi fit a pattern: legs and arms bound, a single gunshot to the forehead, a victim who was once a member of Moammar Gadhafi's feared internal security apparatus.
A string of assassinations in recent weeks of the embattled strongman's former interrogators is raising fears of a death squad bent on vengeance in this otherwise peaceful rebel bastion in northeast Libya.
There have been at least three former Gadhafi agents found slain in recent weeks, according to Amnesty International and the rebel's newly created justice ministry. However, an officer in the rebels' own security agency indicated the toll is likely higher.
He said the bodies of six Gadhafi agents had been found in just one week at the beginning of the month.
All six had been on a closely guarded list of suspects, he said. "But each time we put a person's name on the list, when we sent someone to arrest them, we found they'd just been killed," said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to speak to reporters.
Critics worry that a retaliation campaign could mirror the regime's repressive methods, including extrajudicial executions without charges or trial. So far, the rebel leadership shows little will to try to hunt down the killers. The rebels' interim civilian administration has organized a fledgling judicial system even as the war continues, but its nascent courts and prisons are too overwhelmed to deal with common crimes, much less political killings. And many have little sympathy for former Gadhafi security officials notorious for torture and brutality.
No one has been arrested in the recent spate of killings, and the judge heading the rebels' judicial department indicated no investigation is planned.
"Many murders have been committed since the revolution. Some we know the criminals, some we do not," Judge Jamal Bennour told The Associated Press.
"But it is very hard at this time for the police to arrest a man carrying a weapon," he added. Most armed men are fighters in what is now being called the Liberation Army of Free Libya.
The head of the main rebel internal security unit, Abdel-Basat Elshaheibi, did not rule out an inside job by his own operatives in the assassinations in Benghazi. But he also said he suspected Gadhafi agents were behind the killings.
"They could be killing them to create a problem and propaganda against us; or perhaps they want to eliminate witnesses to crimes committed under Gadhafi's regime," Elshaheibi said.
Bennour said the killings could be revenge by former prisoners tortured while in custody of Gadhafi's security agents.
Gadhafi's security forces have "a bad reputation, these are very bad people, so we think that maybe they could have been killed by former prisoners," he said. In any case, "we cannot investigate until an arrest has been made."
A senior researcher for Amnesty International, Donatella Rovera, said the rebel civilian administration has made it clear they are against unlawful reprisals, but it remains to be seen if they have the will or ability to end such extrajudicial killings.
The Geneva-based U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is investigating whether the rebels have committed any rights abuses, according to her spokesman.
The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at The Hague, which has issued arrest warrants for Gadhafi, his son and his intelligence chief, is also investigating alleged abuses, particularly reports of extrajudicial killings of sub-Saharan Africans accused of being Gadhafi mercenaries, a spokesman said.
In Benghazi, a city whose population Gadhafi never trusted and where he imposed more severe repression than elsewhere, there are many who might seek retribution. It's hard to find someone in the city who has not lost a relative or friend to Gadhafi's atrocities, leaving a well of bitterness.
At Tahrir Square, a symbol of the revolution in front of Benghazi's courthouse, families have posted pictures of scores of young men who died or disappeared during Gadhafi's 42 years in power. Some were hanged publicly. Others disappeared.
In the worst instance of repression, more than 1,200 prisoners, including many political detainees, were gunned down at the notorious Abu Salim prison in 1996. Many were from Benghazi and the nearby town of Dirna.
Outrage over those killings helped spark Libya's revolution: The peaceful protests that started Feb. 15 were to demand the release of a lawyer detained for representing families demanding the bodies of those slain in the Abu Salim massacre. Benghazi was the first city to wrest itself from Gadhafi's rule in the uprising and it now serves as the effective capital of the rebel-held eastern half of Libya.
Among symbols of Gadhafi's rule set ablaze by protesters is the headquarters of the Internal Security Department in Benghazi, now a burnt-out hulk of concrete. There, residents say, a favored torture technique was to hammer a detainee's hand, or pull out the fingernails. They said interrogators sometimes would bring in a victim's wife or daughter and rape her in front of the prisoner to force a false confession.
Bennour, the judge, said the nascent judiciary is struggling to deal with non-political crimes. There are three or four killings of one-time Gadhafi agents on his docket, out of a total of 37 murder cases since the uprising began on Feb. 15, he said. Most of those other cases he believed were likely committed by people taking advantage of the revolution to avenge personal scores.
His department, still trying to establish its authority and with a temporary minister appointed only days ago, has been unable to move quickly enough to satisfy some victims' families.
Bennour said the city is struggling through "very difficult circumstances and we hope we can get over this stage as soon as possible."
Even if they were to arrest suspects, he noted, there is nowhere to jail them because prisons were burned down, some by freed prisoners and others by protesters. Only one small cell block at Bo-Dezera prison has been refurbished by volunteers and holds 82 common criminals, prison chief Ali el-Ghirani said.
There's no room for more and some 3,000 prisoners released on orders from Gadhafi's regime in the early days of the revolution remain at large.
While the city is largely peaceful and officials report fewer common crimes like house break-ins and theft than before the revolution, some residents who worked for Gadhafi live in fear.
Last week, when rebel security officers went to detain Youssouf Eltabouli, a former prison guard under Gadhafi, he mistook them for a death squad and a firefight ensued. No one was hurt and the rebels returned later and arrested Eltabouli, who is being interrogated.
In another case, Elshaheibi said, a general in charge of Gadhafi's internal security in the city "came here yesterday saying he's afraid he could be next on the list for assassination."
Associated Press writers Mike Corder in The Hague and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.