Husband’s death ‘a war crime, it must be investigated’

Penny Sukhraj-Hammerl has, for the past decade, fought through trauma and grief to accept that her husband, photojournalist Anton Hammerl, is dead.

Beyond the deep sense of loss and despair, it’s not knowing what happened to him and where his remains lie that haunts her and her two children. Without these answers, they are unable to heal. 

“It’s very difficult to explain to a young child, growing up without their father, where he is or why we have no grave to visit,” she says.

Hammerl was killed on April 5 2011 in the Libyan desert by loyalists of Muammar Gaddafi while he was covering the conflict in Libya as a freelancer. 

Hammerl, who was an award-winning photographer at The Star, Saturday Star and The Sunday Independent, had dual South African and Austrian citizenship. He was based in Surrey in England, at the time of his death. He was 41. 

There has been no investigation into the circumstances of his death or the aftermath by the Libyan, South African, Austrian or United Kingdom authorities or any other law enforcement or investigative body. Few steps were taken by the South African or Austrian authorities to locate and return his remains. 

Sukhraj-Hammerl, who works in the UK as a journalist, has renewed her quest for justice for Hammerl and is supported by Reporters Without Borders. 

She has instructed human rights law firm Doughty Street Chambers to submit three legal complaints to the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the special rapporteur on freedom of expression and the UN working group on enforced or involuntary disappearances.

The complaints request that they raise their concerns about Hammerl’s case with the Libyan authorities; urgently request information from the South African, Austrian and UK authorities and take steps to ensure an investigation into the circumstances of Hammerl’s death and disappearance, including a probe into the whereabouts of his remains so that they may be recovered and returned to his family.

“I want to stress and underline that there are answers here that need to come out,” she says. 

“There is a truth that needs to be uncovered. That is what we are fighting for — for a proper and thorough investigation. The answers are there. Ten years on, people should come forward, talk to us and tell us what they know.”

For more than six weeks after Hammerl’s death, his family was “cruelly misled” by the Libyan authorities to believe that he was alive, well and detained with two American journalists, Clare Gillis and James Foley, and Spanish photojournalist, Manu Brabo. 

Hammerl was shot in the desert outside Brega, an oil town, when the group came under direct fire from pro-Gaddafi forces. He was left to die in the desert and the three journalists were beaten and captured. 

After their release, Foley and Gillis would inform Sukhraj-Hammerl on 19 May 2011 how they witnessed Hammerl’s murder.

“This was a war crime. Yes, some of the investigations into what Gaddafi started were suspended after he died later in 2011, but his death doesn’t exonerate the authorities in Libya from investigating these crimes that he and his forces committed,” Sukhraj-Hammerl says.

She remains hopeful that Hammerl’s remains will be found. “There have been so many other cases, where decades down the line, people have been able to recover the remains of their loved ones that were lost in those conflicts. Ours is 10 years on, a long and horrible time, that suggests to me that this is possible. It’s not a hopeless case.” 

There should be no exemption or lack of consequences for those who kill journalists in conflict situations, Sukhraj-Hammerl says. “If this case helps to change that and to set a real precedent, then Anton’s legacy will be so much more real. His death would not be in vain.” 

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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