'60 Minutes' of Hell: Australian TV crew charged with kidnap, conspiracy in Lebanon

Published April 13th, 2016 - 01:27 GMT
The television crew were reportedly charged with kidnapping on Tuesday. (Facebook)
The television crew were reportedly charged with kidnapping on Tuesday. (Facebook)

A Brisbane mother and an Australian 60 Minutes crew could be facing 20 years in jail and hard labour after being charged by Lebanese officials over their involvement in a botched 'child recovery operation' in Beirut.

Sally Faulkner and the four-member television crew, including reporter Tara Brown, walked into a Lebanon judge's private office on Tuesday where they were charged with numerous offences including abduction at gunpoint, threatening the lives of children and harming them.

If found guilty they could face up to 20 years in jail. 

'These are all charges that will be strenuously denied by the 60 Minutes crew,' said Nine reporter, Tom Steinfort, who is covering the case.

Along with Ms Faulkner, Tara Brown and colleagues Benjamin Williamson, David Ballment and Stephen Rice were among the seven charged over the recovery operation.

(Screenshot)

(Facebook)

The two others are believed to be members of the child recovery agency hired for the kidnapping. 

Mr Steinfort said each of the TV crew faced brief, five-minute questioning from the judge with reports from media on the ground that they were composed and well.

Tara Brown emerged smiling despite being cuffed to another defendant and reportedly stumbling when led away by a guard.

Ms Faulkner was reportedly less composed and in tears following her appearance.

Her ex-husband, Ali al-Amin, was brought into the judge's office and stayed there during a 20 minute questioning.

The Daily Star, a Lebanese newspaper, has reportedly quoted a judicial source who claims that Ms Faulkner's legal right to custody of the two children could be a mitigating factor in her sentencing. 

A judge in Lebanon has been asked by prosecutors to investigate the charges which are punishable by a minimum of three years in jail, the ABC reported.  

The judge will be the one to decided if the group will be released on bail or whether they will continue to be detained as investigations continue. 

Nine has hired a legal team in Beirut to represent its crew but it's unknown whether Ms Faulkner has legal representation.

Mr Steinfort said the accused would be formally questioned by the the prosecutor in coming days, with another hearing expected soon where the team will be able to mount a defence. 

'After that, the judge will decide if some of those charges may well be struck off. That is certainly what their lawyer here will be arguing very hard for.'

There are also reports that Lebanese authorities have footage of the alleged abduction attempt, however Nine said its crew was not connected to the recovery team. 

It comes after the TV crew thanked Lebanese authorities for their 'treatment in custody'.

The crew are in 'relatively good spirits given the situation the find themselves in', according to Mr Steinfort.

The five Australians were arrested last week following the incident on the streets of Beirut.

The 60 Minutes crew had followed Ms Faulkner to the Middle East to film the recovery of her children from her estranged husband, who she claims kept her children in Lebanon without her permission.

CCTV footage aired in local media and on Nine appeared to show Noah, 4, and Lahela, 6, being snatched from their paternal grandmother by a group of masked men and bundled into a car.

Australian diplomats in Lebanon and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials in Canberra have been supporting the detained Australians.

Earlier it was revealed Ms Faulkner sent text messages to another child recovery agency during the operation stating that her and the 60 Minutes crew who accompanied her were in 'trouble'. 

A short time after the 60 Minutes crew and members of Child Abduction Recovery International (CARI) were arrested on Thursday, Ms Faulkner made contact with Colin Chapman, who runs a rival child recovery agency from Queensland.

According to text messages and emails obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald, Ms Faulkner confirmed that 60 Minutes recorded the operation but said police didn't have the footage. 

She went on to beg Mr Chapman to help her find a way out of the country via boat or through Syria. 

The 29-year-old said local police had thwarted a plan to sneak the children out of Lebanon on a yacht but that she could make it to a boat 'within a day'.

The Brisbane mother, who left an infant child behind in Australia, said 60 Minutes would pay for the agency to organise another extraction via boat, but Mr Chapman said he would need 'some sort of deposit or guarantee' that the 75,000 euros would be paid. 

'Is there any way your team could do the recovery and get the money later. I know 60 will pay up if it means I don't do the rest of the story and I get out,' Ms Faulkner reportedly said. 

'60 refusing to pay for the boat. They're relying on [Foreign Minister Julie] Bishop to get them out,' Mr Chapman responded.  

Ms Faulkner denied that any force was used against her children's paternal grandmother after she claimed she was pistol whipped and threatened with a gun during the abduction from a busy Beirut bus stop, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

'They say we took them using guns and hit [the grandmother] in the head. We didn't even touch the grandmother,' she said. 

Ms Faulkner reportedly said that she and the 60 Minutes crew were in 'a bit of sh*t', also confirming that 'Adam', suspected to be head of CARI Adam Whittington,  had been 'pulled in for questioning'.   

Daily Mail Australia understands the group was advised on Sunday that the legal process could see them remain in custody for up to a month, at least.

Lebanese authorities have split up the detained Australians, sending Ms Faulkner and Tara Brown to a female-only detention centre and the male members to another detention centre.

Lebanese police allege the crew paid for and filmed the attempted kidnapping of the Brisbane mother's two children after their father Ali el-Amien moved them to the Middle East without her permission. 

Lebanese authorities reportedly have evidence that Channel Nine paid for the abduction. 

According to the ABC, police said they had a signed statement from a member of CARI confirming they received $115,000 for the operation.  

By Belinda Grant Geary and Freya Noble and Frank Coletta for Daily Mail Australia and Australian Associated Press


© Associated Newspapers Ltd.

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