Aus mom, TV crew freed on bail in Lebanon

2016-04-20 22:11
Sally Faulkner sits in a minivan after being released from a Lebanese jail. (Hussein Malla, AP)

Sally Faulkner sits in a minivan after being released from a Lebanese jail. (Hussein Malla, AP)

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Beirut - An Australian mother and TV crew detained in Beirut amid a botched attempt to take the woman's two children from their Lebanese father were released on bail on Wednesday, in a dramatic climax to a high-profile child custody battle that has spanned two continents.

Ali al-Amin, the father of the two children, aged 3 and 5, announced he has dropped attempted kidnapping charges against his estranged Australian wife Sally Faulkner and the Channel 9 TV crew, because he "didn't want the kids to think I was keeping their mother in jail".

Lawyers and the judge involved in the case would not comment about whether any compensation was involved.

Faulkner and the four-person TV crew, led by prominent Australian TV journalist Tara Brown, left a jail in Baabda, a Beirut suburb, in a white van, escorted by an Australian Embassy car. Once inside the vehicle they embraced one another.

Their release was the latest in an international saga that included a controversial "child recovery agency" and a national broadcast crew that gripped headlines both in Australia and the Middle East.

The five Australians are implicated in the operation to seize the two children from Al-Amin two weeks ago. Two Britons and two Lebanese have also been charged in the case, and they remain in jail.

Faulkner has previously said al-Amin moved the children from Australia to Lebanon without her permission.

Surrender custody

She surrendered any custody claims to the two children in Lebanon as part of a deal struck with the father in front of a judge on Wednesday, her lawyer said.

"She will accept that the children will stay with their father," said the attorney, Ghassan Moughabhab, who acknowledged that al-Amin had received a judgment earlier in his favour from a Lebanese religious court. "Taking into consideration the Lebanese law, he's in the right."

Al-Amin said he would raise the young children in Lebanon and would allow Faulkner to visit them. He said he could imagine taking the children to visit their mother in Australia, but only at some point in the future.

"When everything cools down and we come to our senses in regards to all this, then yes," said the father. "There's still a bit of tension, but at the end of the day, we have to come to some sort of balanced relation between her and I."

Faulkner, who was released to the custody of the Australian Embassy, is expected to meet Ali and their two children at the courthouse on Thursday, before leaving the country the day after. The TV crew is expected to leave Lebanon promptly.

Investigative Judge Rami Abdullah said the state still has to review whether to drop public charges against the suspects, but that Faulkner and the camera crew were free to leave Lebanon once they posted bail.

"There is a crime that happened, and everyone has a role in the affair," said Abdullah.

Faulkner and the TV crew will be expected to return to Lebanon to stand trial if the public charges are not dropped, Abdullah said.

Despite the release of the five Australians, others detained in the case were still in custody.

Mastermind

British-Australian Adam Whittington, who heads the Britain-based agency Child Abduction Recovery International, and is alleged to have masterminded the botched attempt to snatch the children in Beirut, remains in jail, along with another Briton, Greg Michael.

Their lawyer said their outcomes should be tied to the fate of the Channel 9 crew.

"Both of them came here based on instructions from Channel 9, who paid for their programme," said the attorney, Joe Karam.

According to Whittington, the TV network deposited over $100 000 in fees to his agency's account to finance the operation. Karam added that Whittington was unaware of breaking Lebanese law.

"My client believed he was assisting a mother get back her children. She had an Australian court order," he said.

Two Lebanese men also remain in jail. Sahar Mohsin, attorney for Mohammad Hamza, said her client was simply hired to drive the getaway vehicle, and was unaware of any illegal plot when he joined the crew.

Al-Amin dismissed the alibi, challenging Mohsin outside the court: "Ask [Hamza] how long he was sitting outside my building, observing me."

The two children at the centre of the case were snatched from their grandmother - al-Amin's mother - and a domestic worker while they were on their way to school in Beirut two weeks ago. Security camera footage showed assailants knocking the grandmother, Ibtisam Berri, to the ground before driving off with the children in a Hyundai sedan. A man was seen filming the scene from the car.

Safe

According to reports, the children were promptly united with Faulkner, and she placed a call to al-Amin to inform him they were safe and in her custody.

Whittington, who according to his lawyer was not physically present at the scene, had arranged to smuggle Faulkner and the children to Cyprus by boat, and had one waiting at a resort on the Beirut coast.

But they were detained before they made it to the resort. A police sweep detained other suspects, including members of the 60 Minutes crew, within the next 24 hours.

The Lebanese police also promptly returned the children to their father and paternal grandmother. Al-Amin said his mother suffered a head injury in the assault, but was recovering. She also dropped her charges against Faulkner and the TV crew.

He also said he was inclined to empathise with the Australian crew, especially the technicians, after meeting them in the courthouse, where he learned that at least one of them, Benjamin Williamson, was also a father.

"I was in his place before, you know, frustrated, I can't see my kids, and I felt bad," said al-Amin.

Faulkner has a 3-month old child with another father, in Australia.

Read more on:    lebanon  |  australia

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