Aussie mom, TV crew face jail for alleged kidnapping in Lebanon

A sealed truck, believed to be transporting Australian Sally Faulkner, the mother of the al-Amin children, and Australian reporter Tara Brown, heads towards Lebanon's Baabda Prison for women in Beirut, Lebanon, April 13, 2016. © Mohamed Azakir
Nine people are on trial in Lebanon in connection with the kidnapping of two children by their estranged mother and a ‘child recovery’ team, while the TV crew is suspected of paying for the operation to film a ‘breaking story.’

Australian woman Sally Faulkner tried to retrieve her kids from her estranged husband with the help of an ex-Scotland Yard detective Adam Whittington, a British-Australian who runs an agency called Child Abduction Recovery International (CARI), and an Australian TV crew who were in Lebanon to cover the proceedings.

The children – Noah,4, and Lahela, 6 – were snatched from their paternal grandmother on a busy Beirut street by a group of masked men last week, as shown in a CCTV video, released by Channel Nine.

The alleged abductors were reportedly planning to flee the country with the kids on a yacht, but were soon detained by Lebanese authorities. The children were returned to their father, Faulkner's ex-husband Ali Elamine, who she claims took them to Lebanon from her on a holiday last May and never returned – a claim that Elamine denies.

It is understood that all the people involved face charges of hiding information, forming a criminal gang, kidnapping or holding a minor and physical assault, which can attract sentences of up to 20 years. After the first hearing earlier on Wednesday, a Lebanese Judge ordered all the defendants to remain in a pre-trial detention facility until Monday.

He also declared that during this time the kids’ parents are to reach an agreement over access to their children which would help the detained, as the judge does not plan to drop charges otherwise, according to lawyer Ghassan Moughabghab.

“There is no chance the charges will be dropped. It is a violation of Lebanese law by all of these people,” the judge said according to Nine reporter, Tom Steinfort.

Moughabghab could downgrade charges to a misdemeanor, but that might involve giving up Faulkner's claim of custody for her kids and settling for full access rights instead.

Nine paid for the story?

Meanwhile, ‘Child recovery’ team leader spoke to the ABC news outlet from a boat in Lebanese waters shortly before the kidnapping took place, boasting about a “big story,” he’s been working on.

“60 Minutes [are] with us now actually, doing a big story. So you should see that shortly," he said, as reported by the news media.

They also state that there is evidence Channel Nine paid for the operation apparently to film a nice news piece, citing Lebanese authorities. Lebanese police allegedly have a signed statement from a member of the “recovery team” who says Nine paid $US90,000 for the operation.

Col Chapman, who describes himself as a child recovery specialist, told AP that he negotiated with an Australian television network to snatch two Lebanese-Australian children from their father's family in Beirut late last year. However the network rejected his offer choosing a cheaper option, he claimed.

Executives at the Nine Network's "60 Minutes" program told him to "sharpen his pencil" when he quoted them 150,000 Australian dollars ($114,000) late to get the job done, AP reported on Tuesday.

The detained journalists meanwhile deny the claim of paying for the news piece, while the network refuses to comment on it. It has, however, sent an executive to Lebanon and is providing legal support.

“We are co-operating fully with the Lebanese authorities and […] respect the laws of Lebanon and its judiciary. We want to see our crew and Ms. Faulkner return home safely as soon as possible and we are working with a respected Lebanese legal team in Beirut to secure this outcome,” Channel Nine spokesperson said in a statement.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told 6PR radio that officials were doing “everything we can” to support the arrested Australians.

“Australians have to understand – all Australians, no matter who they are – that if you are overseas you have to comply with the laws of the country of which you’re in as we expect visitors to Australia to abide by our laws,” Turnbull added.

Meanwhile, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said on Wednesday that Lebanese authorities are treating the case “very seriously.” She added she was in “constant communication” on the case with her Lebanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. However, she noted it was unclear for how long the Australians will have to remain in Lebanon.

“Lebanese law is different from Australian law. We are taking advice but I understand that all of the Australians detained have retained lawyers, local lawyers, who will be advising them of their rights,” she explained.

Lebanon is not a party to any international agreement covering child custody disputes. Lebanese law, being based on religion, does not support mother’s claims on her children once they reach a certain age.