Libya: Release body of South African photojournalist

New York, May 20, 2011The Libyan government should immediately release the body of South African photographer Anton Hammerl, at left, and investigate the role of the armed forces in his death, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

Hammerl, 41, was shot and killed by government forces near Brega in eastern Libya on April 5. Three journalists traveling with him were detained by Libyan authorities until May 18 and announced Hammerl’s death after their release.

For more than six weeks the government alternately claimed that Hammerl was safe in custody or that he was not in government hands, Human Rights Watch and CPJ said. Credible sources reported that the Libyan government possesses Hammerl’s passport, and so was aware of his identity and his fate.

“Libyan government forces killed Anton Hammerl six weeks ago and then lied about what happened,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch. “They had his passport and they knew he was dead. Now they should at least release his body and provide some truthful answers about his fate.”

Under international humanitarian law applicable in the armed conflict in Libya, parties to a conflict have obligations regarding the missing and the dead. Libya was obliged to take all feasible measures to account for persons reported as missing as a result of fighting and provide their family members any information it had regarding their fate. Hammerl’s family had repeatedly sought information about his whereabouts.

Deliberately withholding or providing false information about the fate of an individual in state custody, including someone who has died, may amount to an enforced disappearance under international human rights law. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has held that it is prohibited for states to deliberately withhold from families information on missing relatives. 

Enforced disappearances committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population can be investigated and prosecuted as crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction in Libya for international crimes committed since the start of anti-government protests on February 15.

“The Libyan government chose to remain silent about Hammerl’s fate, even though they knew he had been killed,” said CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Mohamed Abdel Dayem. “That’s not only cruel, it’s unlawful.”

Hammerl, married to Penny Sukrahj, and father of a 3-month-old boy, a 7-year-old boy, and an 11-year-old girl, traveled to eastern Libya to cover the conflict as a freelance photographer. He was working on the front line near Brega on April 5 with three other foreign journalists–Clare Gillis, James Foley, and Manuel Varela–also known as Manu Brabo–when they came under fire from government forces. Hammerl was shot in the abdomen and Gillis, Foley, and Brabo were captured.

Gillis told The Atlantic magazine, “They took away our stuff, tied us up, threw us in the back of the truck. And we all looked down at Anton … I saw him not moving and in a pool of blood. Jim tried to talk to him–‘Are you OK?’–and he didn’t answer anymore.”

The Libyan government held Gillis, Foley and Brabo until May 18, when they were released in Tripoli, the capital. They traveled to Tunisia the following day, where they informed Hammerl’s family of his death.

International efforts were ultimately successful in gaining the release of the detained journalists, but the South African government appears to have played no part, Human Rights Watch and CPJ said. When South African President Jacob Zuma visited Tripoli on April 10 and 11, he failed to raise Hammerl’s case, according to media reports.

The South African government reacted to the news of Hammerl’s death by accusing the Libyan authorities of misinformation. “We kept getting reassured at the highest level that he was alive until his colleagues were released and shared the information yesterday [May 19],” said International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.

Hammerl also held Austrian citizenship and the Austrian government similarly criticized the Gaddafi government. “We are very disappointed at the Libyan side that they had not conveyed the news,” said Otto Ditz, Austria’s ambassador to South Africa. “Now we hope they will be cooperative and show us where he is buried so we can bring him to his family for proper burial.”

Five journalists have been killed covering the conflict in Libya and at least 50 have been detained. At least 15 Libyan and foreign journalists are still believed to be held by Libyan authorities.

“It’s shameful that the South African government saw no urgency in Hammerl’s case,” Bouckaert said. “South Africa and Austria should now work to get Hammerl’s body home and save the family further grief.”