On the morning of Wednesday, April 6, a nanny, a grandma, and her two young grandchildren waited for a school bus on the sidewalk of a busy street in Beirut's southern suburbs. Suddenly, the doors of a car parked nearby sprung open, and four men jumped out. The assailants grabbed the children and bundled them into the car, pushing the elderly grandmother to the ground in the ensuing tussle. Within seconds, it was all over, and the car drove off as the nanny tried to chase after it, helplessly brandishing her handbag.
The grainy CCTV footage — contained in the Arabic-language Lebanese news report below — shows the scenario that played out in southern Beirut after Sally Faulkner, an Australian from Brisbane, and a team of child-recovery operatives tried to take back her two children, who she claims were kidnapped from her last year by their Lebanese father, Ali al-Amin.
The kidnap team consisted of four men — two Lebanese and two Britons — one of whom is an ex-police officer with a criminal record.
In addition to the kidnap team was a four-person TV crew from Australian Channel Nine TV's 60 Minutes news program — including well-known reporter Tara Brown — who came to Beirut to film the whole operation. (The Australian 60 Minutes has no relationship with the American 60 Minutes program on CBS).
What Faulkner and her legal team call a "recovery" was supposed to culminate in an illicit escape by sea to Cyprus, but they never got that far. Instead, within 24 hours, police had arrested the whole group and returned the young children to Amin and the grandmother.
In the week since then, what the Australian journalists presumably thought would be a thrilling bit of reality TV documenting a long-sought reunion between mother and children has morphed into criminal charges that carry possible prison time and have prompted a transnational diplomatic nightmare. Faulkner, Brown, and their fellow Australians producer Stephen Rice, cameraman Ben Williamson, and sound recordist David Ballment now face charges of kidnapping, conspiracy to commit a crime, and physical assault that could carry up to 20 years in prison.
The kidnap team, consisting of Britons Craig Michael and Adam Whittington, Lebanese Mohammad Hamza and Khaled Barbour, and a tenth unknown person, face the same charges.
"The judge is someone who finds family very important, so he is pushing for the parents to reach a compromise," Faulkner's Lebanese lawyer, Ghassan Moghabghab, said. "He thinks that she didn't want to kidnap them, but simply recover them, as she is a mother."
If Faulkner and Amin reach an agreement over the children's custody, she would likely be granted bail, he said, rather than be forced to stay in the overcrowded Baabda Women's Prison where she is currently being held, with Brown. It's not clear if such an agreement would benefit the other accused in the case.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has formed a joint national committee with Australia to try to resolve the custody case and smooth things over. But the judge presiding over the preliminary investigative stage of the case, Rami Abdullah, has stated very clearly that Lebanese law had been broken and that there was "no way" the charges would be dropped.
"The [kidnap] case will definitely go to the criminal court," said Moghabghab. "The foreign minister can't do anything about that. He cannot change the penal articles [they are being charged with] or the procedures of the court."
The criminal case over the kidnapping revolves around who was involved in the actual grabbing of the children, and who paid the kidnap team to take on the job. The alleged head of the kidnap team, Adam Whittington, is the founder of Child Abduction Recovery International (CARI), which was reportedly paid US $88,100 to retrieve the Australian-born children — a five-year-old and three-year-old.
Whittington is an Australian army veteran and worked as a Scotland Yard detective in the UK (he holds dual citizenship). He was previously imprisoned in Singapore in 2014 after a similarly botched job and has now been accused of fabricating successful child recoveries in order to boost his company's profile.
It is not clear who exactly was in the kidnap vehicle apart from Faulkner, but Brown's Lebanese lawyer, Kamal Abou Zahr, said that the only 60 Minutes crew member in the vehicle was the cameraman.
"The team had nothing to do with recovering the kids, they were just shooting pictures," he said.
Nine TV, 60 Minutes parent network, has refused to comment on whether they paid CARI for their services, despite reports of a document proving they did, but Zahr said that was beside the point.
"The TV crew didn't pay anything, they are just employees," he said, adding that he had seen no evidence of any such document.
The case has forced politicians in Australia — where Lebanese immigrants make up a sizable minority — to walk a very fine line.
"We respect the Lebanese legal system and their right to investigate and take proceedings if they feel offences have been committed," Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Wednesday. "But we support Australians who find themselves in these difficulties and these circumstances right around the world and of course we're doing that with respect to the 60 Minutes crew in Beirut at the moment."
The custody dispute at the center of the whole affair is even more complicated.
Faulkner says it began in August 2013 when the family, scared by a suicide bombing in the Lebanese capital, moved from Beirut back to Australia, with Amin, who runs a surfing business in Lebanon, continuing to shuttle back and forth. In January 2014, Faulkner told Amin she wanted to separate, but she never officially divorced him, and has said relations remained amicable and Amin returned regularly to visit their kids.
Amin then asked Faulkner if he could take the children on a trip to Lebanon to visit their grandmother, and she says she happily agreed. On May 27, 2015, he left Australia with them, and a few weeks later he told Faulkner over Skype that they would not be returning.
Although she gave a number of emotional interviews in the ensuing months, it is not clear what steps Faulkner took to file criminal charges against Amin. She started a Change.org petition six months ago and wrote that "the [Australian] government say 'parental child abduction' isn't technically criminalised in Australia so aren't bothering to help me find [the kids]."
Australia's Attorney-General spokesperson said that "existing offences make it a crime in certain circumstances to remove from Australia a child who is the subject of a parenting order," but Faulkner did not apply for a parenting order until much later in the year.
"The Family Court can confirm that parenting orders were made in December 2015 on the application of the mother outlining arrangements for the children in this matter," a Family Court spokesperson said. "These orders were made after the children were in the physical care of the father."
Amin has not commented on the allegations that he, in fact, was the first one to kidnap the children, by taking them without Faulkner's permission. He told the Guardian that he decided he wanted them to be raised with his tightly-knit family in Lebanon.
When contacted by Vice, Amin said the court had told him not to make any further comments on the matter, and that he could only say "that the kids are good and doing fine."
Faulkner and Amin's dispute is not a unique problem: The Australian government says with two to three children are abducted from the country each week. The case has thrown a spotlight onto the difficulty of cross-border custody disputes, particularly when it involves a country like Lebanon that is not signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
Lebanese law heavily favors the father in custody cases, and, despite the country's progressive reputation, Lebanese women are still second-class citizens. According to a Human Rights Watch report, Lebanese laws "erect greater barriers for women than men who wish to terminate unhappy or abusive marriages, initiate divorce proceedings, ensure their rights concerning their children after divorce, or secure pecuniary rights from a former spouse. The laws also violate children's rights, most significantly the need to consider their best interests in all judicial decisions concerning their welfare."
Foreign women have even fewer rights. Moreover, Lebanese family law varies by religion, and the country's various Christian, Muslim, and Druze sects all oversee their own courts and law.
Amin, a Shiite Muslim, applied for and was granted sole custody of the children from the Shiite religious courts in Lebanon.
"This is a legally binding document," explained a Lebanese judicial source with knowledge of the case. "Without this it could have just been a mother trying to get her kids back, but this paper establishes custodianship in Lebanon... She broke the law."
Proceedings will resume Monday," when Judge Abdullah will continue questioning those arrested — all of whom are currently being held in pretrial detention — before he announces whether the case will go to trial.