CAOILFHIONN GALLAGHER | Anton Hammerl died for truth – the world must take it from there

It’s 10 years since the photojournalist died, and no-one has been prosecuted and there has not even been a full probe

27 June 2021 - 23:05
By Caoilfhionn Gallagher
One of the last pictures taken by Anton Hammerl before he was shot by troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi in Brega, Libya.
Image: Anton Hammerl One of the last pictures taken by Anton Hammerl before he was shot by troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi in Brega, Libya.

It is often said no journalist wants to become the story. But 10 years ago, journalist Anton Hammerl became the story when he was killed in Libya by pro-Gaddafi forces. And now, a decade later, his family wants to ensure his story is told.

In early 2011, Anton Hammerl, an experienced, award-winning photojournalist and photographer, travelled from his home in London to Libya to cover the civil war, part of a wave of pro-democracy uprisings known as the Arab Spring.

Hammerl was a courageous, brilliant journalist, deeply committed to his craft.

He entered Libya at a time when Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were suspected of serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, to bring accurate accounts of what was truly happening.

On April 5 2011, days after arriving in Libya, Hammerl and three other journalists –US journalists James Foley and Clare Gillis and Spanish photojournalist Manu Brabo – came under fire while covering the conflict from forces loyal to the nation’s ruler, Gaddafi.

We now know Anton Hammerl was shot and fatally wounded that day. Foley later described what happened: seeing two heavily armed Gaddafi vehicles coming over the rise of the hill, shooting heavy AK47 fire, and the four journalists pressing themselves as close as they could to the ground because they immediately knew they were in danger of their lives; the realisation that this was not crossfire aimed at the rebels – the journalists were being shot at directly.

Foley said: “I had heard Anton call for help. He was in front. He was hit, and I heard him, I heard him yell help. And I called Anton: Are you OK? And more faintly he said no. And that was the last I heard of him. That was the last we heard of him.”

The other three journalists were captured and detained for over six weeks. Throughout this time, Libyan authorities led Hammerl’s family to believe he was alive, well and detained with the other three journalists. The truth only emerged 45 days later, when Foley, Gillis and Brabo were released from custody and crossed the border to safety, and could then tell his family about his true fate.

“From the moment Anton disappeared in Libya we have lived in hope as the Libyan officials assured us that they had Anton,” Hammerl’s family said at the time. “It is intolerably cruel that Gaddafi loyalists have known Anton’s fate all along and chose to cover it up.”

The SA government also said it had been misled. “We kept getting reassured at the highest level that he was alive until his colleagues were released and shared the information,” then international relations minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said.

The Austrian and UK governments, and human rights organisations monitoring the case, were also deceived by Libyan officials throughout this time.

It has now been 10 years since Hammerl’s death. His widow, Penny Sukhraj-Hammerl, has now appointed me to lead a team of specialist international lawyers. We have pieced together the available evidence, and our conclusion is that there are reasonable grounds to suspect Hammerl’s killing constituted a war crime, committed by Libyan armed forces; that he and his fellow journalists were unlawfully targeted, despite it being apparent that they were civilians and journalists; and that the group of four journalists were subjected to an enforced disappearance.

We have also found that Hammerl’s family and the governments of SA, Austria and the UK were deliberately misled by the Libyan authorities for more than six weeks. There is a continuing violation of the family’s right to know Hammerl’s fate, and their right to an investigation into his killing and its aftermath.  

I had I had heard Anton call for help. He was in front. He was hit, and I heard him, I heard him yell help. And I called Anton: Are you OK? And more faintly he said no. And that was the last I heard of him.
James Foley
Anton Hammerl in Libya.
Image: UNAI ARANZADI Anton Hammerl in Libya.

Our firm view is that the evidence suggests the horrendous events of April 5 2011 were not a single battalion of troops going rogue. On the contrary, Hammerl’s death and disappearance occurred in the context of a hostile climate of violence and hatred towards journalists, promoted and endorsed by the Libyan government at the highest level.

Shortly before Hammerl’s death, Gaddafi in a public address described foreign TV stations as “stray dogs”. He and members of his government repeatedly made public statements that were particularly derogatory to foreign journalists working in Libya. His foreign minister was reported as having warned that journalists entering Libya were doing so “illegally” and would be regarded as supporters of al-Qaeda. These statements clearly promoted and instilled a hostile environment for journalists operating in Libya at that time, and incited violence against journalists doing their jobs.

A number of journalists and photojournalists were killed, and many more were subjected to enforced disappearances, arrests, physical attacks and harassment. This included the arrest, detention or deportation of journalists from outlets such as the BBC, Al Jazeera, the Guardian, Al-Alam TV and the New York Times, and many freelancers. In one instance the journalists were subjected to mock executions by members of the Libyan security forces.

Actions were also taken by the authorities to impede the flow of information, both inside and outside the country, including by cutting landline telephone wires and stopping internet access. The troops who killed Hammerl and kidnapped his fellow journalists on April 5 2011 did so knowing they had the full approval of their leaders. This was a systematic silencing of journalists reporting on the conflict, with fatal results for Hammerl.

Hammerl’s case is not only deeply troubling in itself, but is emblematic of the ongoing impunity concerning war crimes and crimes against humanity by government forces in Libya at that time. It is also a stark reminder of the importance of the work of photographers, who play a vital role in bearing witness to armed conflict, taking risks to perform a key public service. SA photojournalist João Silva (who was injured in Kandahar, Afghanistan in 2010, losing both legs in a landmine explosion) has described this in the Netflix show Conflict, about photography in war zones: “Being behind the camera doesn’t exclude you from being there. It’s not a shield, it’s not a filter.”

South Africa
Haunted by Hammerl's death
7 years ago

And yet, 10 years on, impunity reigns. Not only has no-one been prosecuted for his murder, there has not even been a full, formal investigation. Initial steps taken by the International Criminal Court appear to have halted when Gaddafi died, and there has been no investigation by Libya, or by the other key states – SA or Austria, the countries of Hammerl’s citizenship, or the UK, where Hammerl lived at the time.

There is a clear legal obligation upon the Libyan authorities to investigate. But it is apparent there is simply no political will or investigative capacity for this to happen. What, then, is the international community to do?

Now, after waiting for a decade, Hammerl’s family is calling on the international community to fill the investigative void and take the action Libya has failed to take since April 5 2011. This week, Hammerl’s story will be told at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. His family are calling for the UN to seek an investigation into Hammerl’s death and the aftermath.

Hammerl and his family have been let down for 10 years. Now, SA must show its support and seek justice for Anton Hammerl.  

Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers in London and leads the international legal team for Penny Sukhraj-Hammerl.