21 April 2016
by Martin Chulov

Australian mother and TV crew released in Lebanon kidnap case

Sally Faulkner, the mother of the two Australian children, sits in a minivan after she released from a Lebanese jail with the three members of Channel 9 Australian TV.

Sally Faulkner, the Australian mother at the centre of a botched child recovery operation, journalist Tara Brown and three television crew members have been released from a Beirut jail after a deal was struck to dismiss kidnapping charges against them in exchange for compensation.

However, the British “child recovery agent” Adam Whittington and two others implicated in the alleged attempt to kidnap Faulkner’s two children from her estranged Lebanese husband will remain in custody.

Brown said it was “great to be going home” after she and her colleagues from Channel Nine 60 Minutes programme were freed from prison and boarded a flight to Australia. The TV crew crowded into the back of a van leaving Baabda Prison, late Wednesday, Beirut time, Brown conspicuously clutching her passport.

Brown and the crew, from the Nine Network’s 60 Minutes programme, had been ordered by a judge to post bail by 2pm Beirut time on Wednesday in order to be freed. Judge Rami Abdullah accepted that Faulkner’s ex-husband, Ali al-Amin, would drop personal charges against the group.

However, after a hearing with the five Australians in the presence of their lawyers, the judge said he was yet to decide whether he would refer separate criminal charges to another court, a move that would require the group to return to Lebanon for a later hearing.

Members of Australian ‘60 Minutes’ television crew greet Australian Sally Faulkner, the mother of the al-Amine children, and Australian reporter Tara Brown, after they left Baabda Prison.

Lawyers involved in the case said Amin, who brought the couple’s two young children to Lebanon last May and refused to return them to their mother in Brisbane, received “substantial” compensation from Nine in return for dropping the case. Outside the court, Amin denied he had been paid anything. Faulkner is understood to have agreed not to pursue a custody claim.

“The figure was much, much higher than a normal amount for custody cases in Lebanon, which is around $40,000-$50,000 [£28,000-£35,000],” one of the lawyers said.

The deal came nearly two weeks after the Australians and two British nationals who helped organise the botched recovery operation were arrested on 7 April, hours after the children had been snatched from their grandmother and nanny as they walked them to school.

As the group prepared to leave Lebanon, senior Lebanese officials gave new details about a plan that was foiled two days before it was carried out.

Not only did Amin know of Faulkner’s movements, through access to her emails and social media accounts, but intelligence officers were also on to her.

Boat that Adam Whittington used to travel from Cyprus to Lebanon.

A senior Lebanese official told the Guardian that the Australians, as well as Whittington, another British national, Craig Robert Michael, and a mystery Romanian who is still at large, were under close surveillance within hours of Whittington and his two accomplices arriving on a boat they had rented in Cyprus.

“They had said they were lost, and that the boat had broken, and they wanted to dock in port,” the officer said. “They were staying in the Mövenpick and we checked the passport scans they had given at check-in. It didn’t seem right, and then one of my officers asked Whittington for his [physical] passport. He said no, and then we got more suspicious.

“Then they said four Australians would be leaving by sea with them the next day. We thought: ‘What’s this? They arrive from the airport, then they want to take a boat to Cyprus?’ Something was clearly strange. So we got the Australian passport scans and checked them out and we worked out that they were from a famous television show.

“We set up in the Mövenpick and watched their every move. On the day of the kidnapping, we saw one of them leave the hotel in a grey Hyundai Kia at 5.30am. Later that day we learned that the same car had been used in the abduction. Then we knew we had them.

“Then we went to the Australian embassy, they were alarmed by it all. They didn’t know anything at that point. The mother was in a house, but she was easy to find. They were very careless with their communications, but even more careless with their planning.”

The official said the focus of the case was always going to be Whittington who, in the mind of Lebanese police and prosecutors, had the strongest case to answer: “This was his plan. He organised a kidnapping on foreign soil. If you are going to do that, don’t get caught.

“The mother was being a mother. The journalists were involved in a way that they shouldn’t have been, but they were doing their job.”

Ali al-Amin with his lawyer outside court in Beirut on Monday

Faulkner, Brown and seven others were charged last week with armed abduction, purveying threats, and physical harm after snatching five-year-old Lahela and Noah, three, from a south Beirut street. The abduction was captured on CCTV and played a central role in charges being laid.

Two Lebanese men, Mohammed Hamza and Khaled Barbour, who were the alleged drivers of the getaway vehicle, remain in custody. A lawyer connected to the case said one of the men was related to a third man, named Ahmed, whom Whittington had worked with in Europe.

Speaking on the steps of the Palace of Justice in Baabda in the foothills above Beirut, Amin said he would consider allowing the children to see their mother. “But not in the short term. Or maybe the medium term. I did not want them thinking later on that I had kept their mother in jail.”

Faulkner gave birth to a child with a new partner three months ago. Her lawyer, Ghassan Moghabghab, said: “Everyone is relieved that this is all over. There will be some sort of arrangement on custody later on. For now, Sally is free to return to Australia.”

Brown said in an interview with Channel Nine that said she spoken with her husband, TV producer John McAvoy. “I had a chance to say hi to John. I was ordered to call home straight away,” Brown told Channel Nine.

“Not the kids yet. I can’t wait to speak to them obviously, but they have no idea about any of this. It’s great to talk to home. It’s great to be going home.”

Sally Faulkner, the mother at the centre of the child custody dispute, was also in the van with the TV crew. She said she was “just so glad to be out of there”.

“I mean, they treated us well. We can’t complain about that. But it’s just the uncertainty that sort of kept me awake at night, not knowing if it was going to be a life-long sentence or what. Yeah, it was no joke,” she said.

Faulkner is staying in Beirut for a custody hearing with the children’s father, Ali al-Amin. She is expected to give up custody of the children.

None in the van commented on those involved in “child-rescue” operation who had been left behind in the prison, still facing charges: Whittington, who is a dual British-Australian citizen, his colleague Craig Michael, and two Lebanese men who assisted with the 6 Aprilplot.

Whittington’s lawyer Joe Karam, said Channel Nine had hired the men to undertake the child rescue operation, and then abandoned them.

“Ethically it wasn’t appropriate for Channel Nine to arrange for a deal and not include the man they asked to execute for them something,” he told reporters outside the Palace of Justice.

Karam said bank records showed Nine directly paid Whittington’s firm Child Abduction Recovery International (CARI) $69,000. That amount is understood to be the first of two expected payments. “That shows that they did ask him to provide an investigation in a missing child which is not buying a story, they asked for what happened. They were all a team they came all together and I think they should leave altogether,” Karam said.

Nine has not confirmed whether it made payments it made either for the story, or the operation.

The station has also refused to comment on the amount paid to Ali al-Amin in exchange for dropping the charges against the crew.