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The final days of The Saturday Star’s Anton Hammerl and his family’s desire for closure

TJ Lemon, photographer and friend of missing South African lensman Anton Hammerl, joins others to demonstrate for his release on the corner of William Nicol and Jan Smuts avenues in Johannesburg, Thursday, 21 April 2011. Hammerl went missing in Libya with two other journalists from Spain and the US. A demonstration for Hammerl by journalists, concerned citizens and friends was also held in Cape Town yesterday in a bid to draw attention to his plight. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

TJ Lemon, photographer and friend of missing South African lensman Anton Hammerl, joins others to demonstrate for his release on the corner of William Nicol and Jan Smuts avenues in Johannesburg, Thursday, 21 April 2011. Hammerl went missing in Libya with two other journalists from Spain and the US. A demonstration for Hammerl by journalists, concerned citizens and friends was also held in Cape Town yesterday in a bid to draw attention to his plight. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

Published May 21, 2022

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Johannesburg - Former Saturday Star photographer Anton Hammerl was left to die in the Libyan desert 11 years ago.

Since then his family has searched for his remains and demanded answers, but they have always hit a wall of silence.

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But now the lawyers representing Hammerl’s wife, Penny Sukhraj-Hammerl, believe his remains were located but the South African and Libyan governments are refusing to provide any details.

They also suspect that Hammerl was deliberately targeted by pro-Gaddafi forces on April 5, 2011.

“We know that from the information we’ve got, we believe that Anton’s remains were located in a mass grave a number f years after his killing. And despite them having been located, they were not returned to his family,” said Caoilfhionn Gallagher QC, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, who is representing Hammerl’s family. She was speaking at the Front line club in London on Thursday night.

The evidence that the family has that points to his body having been located, is his passport.

Slain South African photographer Anton Hammerl. Photo: Independent Newspapers

It was revealed earlier this week that Sukhraj-Hammerl unexpectedly received her husband’s South African passport in the mail in 2016, five years after his death.

The passport had been sent to her by the South African government.

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“We know that Anton always carried his passport on his person when out in the field; we know he was carrying his passport that day; and we also know that his passport was not with his belongings from his hotel when they were returned to his family many years ago,” said Gallagher, in an email to the Saturday Star.

The event at the Front line club, a media club based in London was held on the 11th anniversary on the day that Sukhraj-Hammerl was told by journalists, who were with her husband, that he had been killed.

Sukhraj-Hammerl told the audience of the frustration she had of trying to find out more about her husband’s death, while raising a young family. But it was the arrival of the passport that provided a solid lead.

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“We realised that perhaps we have the first opportunity, something tangible to pursue in terms of trying to recover his remains, and find out what really happened in the aftermath of his death,” Sukhraj-Hammerl said.

But efforts to try and find out more information about the passport and how it ended up in the hands of the South African government have proven frustratingly difficult.

Sukhraj-Hammerl ’s lawyers even launched a Freedom of Information request asking for South Africa to provide all information related to Hammerl’s death.

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After six months they received a reply but the information they received was patchy, with much omitted.

“It is a little unclear to me in relation to the South African situation, whether it’s a cock up, a conspiracy, or both,” said Gallagher at the event.

Earlier this week, a spokesperson for the Department of International Relations and Cooperation said it was up to the Libyan authorities to explain how they came to have the passport in their possession.

Now in an attempt to get more information about the passport, Sukhraj-Hammerl has gone public. She released a letter she has written addressed to the South African High Commission in the UK, President Cyril Ramaphosa and Dr Naledi Pandor, of Dirco. In it she asks for a meeting and answers.

Hammerl left his home in London on May 28, 2011 for Libya. He went as a freelance photographer.

Before arriving in the UK, he worked as a photographer in South Africa. He had been the chief photographer at the Saturday Star. What he perhaps didn’t know travelling to Libya then, was that he, like many other journalists, was a marked man.

The country was the latest casualty of the Arab Spring. But this was not to be a peaceful revolution; it quickly descended into a civil war.

From evidence collected, Gallagher believes that the Gaddafi regime at the time was targeting journalists.

“There are reasonable grounds to suspect that Anton was the victim of a war crime when he was killed.

In those weeks before Anton was killed, Gaddafi spoke on TV describing foreign journalists as stray dogs.

“The message which goes out to individual troops, who happened to be in the area where Anton was killed that day, is foreign journalists are fair game.”

On the day of Hammerl’s death, he joined three other journalists – James Foley, Clare Gillis and photographer Manu Brado – on a trip west from their base in Benghazi.

What happened would finally be told after the three surviving journalists were released 44 days later and were safely over the border in Tunisia.

Not far from the town of Brega, they came under fire by Gaddafi loyalists.

Hammerl was shot in the stomach and called out for help. The other journalists were captured, beaten up and thrown into a truck.

While they were held in captivity, the Libyan government claimed that Hammerl was alive and was asking to speak to his family.

Now 11 years later, there is evidence that could just provide the lead that finally gives a father and husband a proper burial and a grave his family can visit.

“We now know that South African officials held vital evidence for at least three years which they failed to pass on to the family promptly, and they have still not answered basic questions. Where did the passport come from? When was it sent to them, and under what circumstances? Answering these questions could provide vital leads to locating Anton’s remains,” Gallagher told the Saturday Star.

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