“It’s difficult to accept that he’s just vanished,” Sukhraj-Hammerl told me. “It’s hard not to have a place to go to have a moment.”
During much of the past decade, Libya has not had consistent or even functioning governance, but it still has responsibilities under international law. Although the family’s lawyers contend that there is evidence indicating that Hammerl’s killing constituted a war crime, investigations into Gaddafi’s atrocities were suspended when he was killed later in 2011. But his death doesn’t exonerate Libyan authorities from investigating the crimes he and his forces committed.
Caoilfhionn Gallagher, a lawyer representing Sukhraj-Hammerl, said that withholding information about Hammerl’s fate was “unspeakably cruel.” For 10 years, the response from the authorities in Libya, as well as in South Africa and Austria (where Hammerl had citizenship), has been a “collective shrug,” she told me. “An apathy on a grand scale.”
That apathy is what led to the complaints filed last week with a special working group with the office of the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution.
Such UN expert groups have become a first step in mounting cases against states that violate international law, refusing to engage in accepted diplomatic and judicial norms.
Rather than acknowledging Hammerl’s death, Libyan authorities in 2011 maintained the ruse that he was still alive and in their custody. We learned of his death from the colleagues that were with Hammerl that day who survived the attack. They were captured and ultimately released after 44 days.
“From the moment Anton disappeared in Libya we have lived in hope as the Libyan officials assured us that they had Anton. It is intolerably cruel that Gaddafi loyalists have known Anton’s fate all along and chose to cover it up,” Hammerl’s family said in a statement after news of his death in 2011.
Since then, though, precious little has been done by authorities in Libya, South Africa and Austria to investigate his death and discover what became of his remains.
But that isn’t to say no one has sought answers. Among the journalists that were with Hammerl when he was killed was James Foley, who made it a personal mission to find out what happened that day, hoping to assist in the quest to recover Hammerl’s remains so that his family could have a proper burial. When Foley was taken hostage in Syria and murdered by members of the Islamic State, the search for answers hit another dead end.
While Foley’s efforts were honorable and courageous, Sukhraj-Hammerl says that journalists shouldn’t be expected to do the work that is the responsibility of governments.
Sukhraj-Hammerl is right. We must support her quest for answers so that those responsible for Anton Hammerl’s death, and its coverup, are not allowed to walk away with impunity. And just as importantly, so that she and her family can finally close this tragic chapter.
“There are cases where others have lost loved ones in conflict and managed to find remains,” she told me. “As far as emotions are concerned, I feel stronger than I did many years ago, and that’s why we can do this. It’s taken time to regain composure emotionally.”
Then she added: “I am definitely hopeful. More than I realized I could be.”