/ 29 June 2021

Widow of Anton Hammerl, killed in Libya, asks UN to investigate his death

Anton Hammerl Memorial Service
Candles and photographs of the late South African photographer Anton Hammerl at his memorial service at His People Church at Parktown on July 2, 2011 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Hammerl was killed by pro-Gaddafi forces in April while covering the war in Libya. His remains have still not been found. (Photo by Sunday Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The wife of South African-born photojournalist Anton Hammerl has appealed to the United Nations to open an inquest into her husband’s death a decade after he was killed by militia loyal to former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Penny Sukhraj-Hammerl is asking the UN’s Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to take decisive action in determining the truth about her husband’s death in Libya in 2011.

Sukhraj-Hammerl will address the UNHRC on 30 June to have them acknowledge breaches of international humanitarian law and international law.

Hammerl was covering the conflict in Libya when he was shot near the town of Brega. His family was falsely led  by the Libyan authorities to believe that he was alive for more than six weeks after his death. His remains have not been found and the circumstances of his death are not known.

The appeal, driven by the campaign Justice for Anton, is supported by international media organisations such as the International Federation of Journalists, South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), Justice for Journalists Foundation and Reporters without Borders. 

During a media briefing on Monday, Sukhraj-Hammerl called for truth and justice for her husband.

“There has been no investigation by Libya, or South Africa or Austria, or even the UK [United Kingdom], where Anton lived. There is a clear obligation from the Libyan authorities to investigate, but it is apparent, there is no will or investigative capacity for this to happen.

“Anton’s killing was an injustice. We need accountability for what happened. We need the United Nations to seriously consider our case and act to end the injustice.”

Represented by Doughty Street Chambers in London, Sukhraj-Hammerl submitted complaints to the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC said two strategic legal systems will be brought to the fore during their appeal. The first includes locating Hammerl’s remains.

Gallagher said a 2012 investigation of the forensic examination of DNA taken from a mass grave in Libya, believed to have been Hammerl’s remains by local Libyan authorities, had gone “entirely cold.” 

The second key strategic aspect includes conducting an investigation into the circumstances around Hammerl’s death. 

“She [Sukhraj-Hammerl] is entitled as a matter of international law, to have an investigation into both his killing … and the aftermath of the 45 days of cover-ups and lies when she was told that her husband was alive and held in detention,” said Gallagher. 

“A number of governments were misled by the Libyan authorities, which are also entitled to an investigation into the foot-dragging and lack of action that we’ve seen since 2011.” 

Freedom of information requests were also sent to the governments of the UK, South Africa and Austria, requesting documents pertaining to information provided by Libya at the time of Hammerl’s death in 2011. 

According to Gallagher, there was widespread suspicion that Gaddafi forces may have been involved in serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, crimes against humanity”, and that Hammerl at the time of his death became a victim of these crimes. 

Sbu Ngalwa, chairperson of Sanef, said he has written to President Cyril Ramaphosa “to ask that the country assists in every way possible”.

The department of international relations committed itself to follow up on the matter.