JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The South African government, under attack by critics for its role in communicating news about photographer Anton Hammerl, has blamed Libya for “lying” to them.
Hammerl is presumed to have been killed in the Libyan desert after new information from GlobalPost’s James Foley and journalist Clare Gillis, who were released Wednesday after six weeks of detention in Libya. Foley and Gillis were with Hammerl when he was shot by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi on April 5.
The South African government had assured Hammerl’s wife Penny Sukhraj and the public that the veteran photographer was safe. Hammerl’s friends in Johannesburg and London had held vigils and rallies for him, and started a yellow ribbon campaign to draw attention to his case.
International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said Friday that the Libyan government had lied about Hammerl, the South African Press Association reports.
"We kept getting reassured at the highest level that he was alive until his colleagues were released and shared the information yesterday [Thursday]," she told reporters in Pretoria.
"Mr. Hammerl's death is a very unfortunate act and the government and the people of South Africa condemn the perpetrators of these actions."
The Johannesburg Star, where Hammerl was once chief photographer and pictures editor, last week quoted Nkoana-Mashabane as saying that the South African government had proof he was alive. But a government spokesman later denied the report, saying that "the minister's quote was not captured correctly.”
Opposition leader Helen Zille has criticized the government for giving Hammerl’s family “false hope.”
"It is unclear what the South African government did or did not know. It is, however, simply unfathomable, and difficult to contemplate, that the minister of international relations would have given the family false hope, by claiming Mr. Hammerl was still alive, last week," Zille said.
Zille said that "in the immediate aftermath of this sort of terrible news our focus must fall on the family and friends, but profoundly serious questions need to be asked of Minister Nkoana-Mashabane, and indeed President Jacob Zuma, in the weeks to come."
The Hammerl family released a statement in the early hours of Friday morning saying they had been informed that Hammerl was shot in the stomach on April 5, near the town of Brega.
"According to eyewitnesses, his injuries were such that he could not have survived without medical attention,” said the statement, which was posted on Facebook.
"Words are simply not enough to describe the unbelievable trauma the Hammerl family is going through.”
"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," the statement said.
Hammerl, father of two young children, moved with his wife from Johannesburg to London in 2006 and had dual South African-Austrian citizenship.
Austria's ambassador to South Africa Otto Ditz, who attended the press conference with Nkoana-Mashabane on Friday, said there had been no suggestion from Libyan authorities that Hammerl was dead, SAPA reports.
"We are very disappointed at the Libyan side that they had not conveyed the news,” Ditz said. “Now we hope they will be co-operative and show us where he is buried so we can bring him to his family for proper burial."
Nkoana-Mashabane and Ditz expressed condolences to Hammerl's family for their "tragic loss."