Australian mother Sally Faulkner just wanted to bring her two young children home again, but she instead wound up in a Lebanese jail and embroiled in a controversy involving an current affairs program and a man hired to snatch her kids off a Beirut street.
Despite an Australian family court having granted her full custody of her son and daughter, she’s now had to return home to Brisbane without that right.
Faulkner landed back in her homeland late Thursday, as the Australian network Channel Nine and the crew of the program 60 Minutes came under growing criticism for allegedly orchestrating a botched child “rescue”.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has warned there could be an investigation into the network itself. He has also called for details of the accusations — including an allegation the network paid the children’s Lebanese-American father to drop kidnapping charges in order for the crew and his ex-wife, to be released.
“Nobody is above the law and if you break the law in other parts of the world, you may well be breaking Australian law as well,” Turnbull said Friday.
The network said it has launched its own review, while other Australian media outlets are reporting Channel Nine paid $115,000 AUD ($112,000 CAD) for the so-called “child abduction recovery” agent at the centre of the controversy.
How did the mother and the 60 Minutes crew wind up in jail?
Faulkner’s ex-husband, Ali Elamine took their two children to Lebanon in May 2015 but never brought them home. Earlier this month, Faulkner traveled to Beirut with 60 Minutes journalist Tara Brown and her crew, who were there to document the recovery of five-year-old Lahela and three-year-old Noah.
Whittington and his co-operative, Craig Michael, successfully swiped Lahela and Noah in broad daylight on April 6, as they walked down a street with their grandmother, Elamine’s mother.
The children were reunited with their mother, but the plan to escape the country with them was thwarted by an apparent mix of shoddy planning and “hubris”.
According to the Australian, 60 Minutes cameraman Ben “The Bear” Williamson wanted one last shot to wrap the story up. He asked the 29-year-old mother to go out into the street, in the poor South Beirut neighbourhood where they had taken Faulkner and the children, to call her ex-husband and tell him she had their Lahela and Noah.
The phone, as it turned out, was under Whittington’s name — and so were the hotel rooms where the 60 Minutes team was staying.
So when Elamine contacted police, investigators had a trail to follow. It led them to the boat Whittington chartered to escape to Cyprus, the Australian reported. It was there they arrested the 40-year-old and his cohort.
The rest of the story plays out like a domino effect, with police picking up members of the 60 Minutes crew after they left Faulkner and her children in the hideout — the family home of the Lebanese fixer Whittington hired to drive the getaway car.
After being left alone, the distraught mother began calling the Australian embassy.
Police stormed into the home the next morning, arrested Faulkner and the driver, then returned the children to their father.
A deal to go home without the kids
The TV crew and Faulkner were held in a Beirut jail until late Wednesday before they flew back to Australia.
In a deal to avoid kidnapping charges, Faulkner relinquished custody of her daughter and son to Elamine. He let her see them one more time before she left the country and returned home to her new partner and three-month-old baby from that relationship. Elamine reportedly agreed to allow Faulkner to see the children in Lebanon or a third country, but not in Australia.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Faulkner and 60 Minutes crew may not be out of the woods yet and they may still face criminal charges.
Whittington and Michael remain detained in Lebanon facing charges.