BEIRUT (AP) — The mother of two Lebanese-Australian children and a four-member Australian TV crew appeared before a Lebanese investigative judge on Wednesday over accusations they attempted to kidnap the woman's two children from their father in Beirut.
Along with the five Australians, two Britons working for British child recovery agency, called Child Abduction Recovery International, and two Lebanese citizens also implicated in the botched abduction appeared before Judge Rami Abdullah in a courthouse compound in Beirut's southeastern suburb of Baabda.
Abdullah is to decide whether they will be referred to court for trial. If charged with the abduction and brought to trial, the nine could get up to 15 years in prison.
The suspects have been in police custody since the failed attempt to snatch the kids while they were on their way to school last week. CCTV footage of the incident shows a camera person emerging from a vehicle after which the children's grandmother and a domestic servant are pushed away and the kids are taken off in the car.
Lebanese police later said they recovered the children and reunited them with their father.
The case has drawn much attention in both Australia and Lebanon.
Australia's prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said Wednesday his country respects Lebanon's right to prosecute the detained Channel Nine television crew, headed by well-known presenter Tara Brown.
The mother, Sally Faulkner, is alleged to have arranged to seize her children from her ex-husband Ali Al-Amin, who she claims moved them from their home in Brisbane to Lebanon without her permission. She has said he took them to Beirut on a holiday last year and never returned.
The judge refused to discuss details of the ongoing investigation but told reporters after questioning the suspects that there has been no political pressure on him or intervention over the case. He did say that according to Lebanese law, the children's father, Ali al-Amin, has custody of the children, aged 3 and 5, following a ruling issued months ago.
Judge Abdullah also said he has encouraged the parents to work out a custody arrangement for the children, without elaborating further. He is to resume questioning the suspects next Monday.
A Lebanese official in Baabda meanwhile told The Associated Press that Faulkner and Brown were moved after the questioning Wednesday from a jail inside the court compound to a nearby jail for women. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, said the women's jail is better, "they can watch TV and they have hot water in the showers."
Media crews outside the courthouse were able to see some of the suspects as they were taken for questioning Wednesday.
Australian TV producer Steven Rice smiled without speaking as he was taken away in handcuffs. Another man, Greg Michael of Britain, was shaking as he was walked in long shorts and a T-shirt. Asked by journalists if he is ok, Michael answered, "I'm sick."
A police official said Michael was taken to a Beirut hospital the night before after feeling unwell and brought back to the court following unspecified treatment. The official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations, did not elaborate.
Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil said he instructed the creation of a joint Lebanese-Australian committee to settle the custody dispute over the two children, state-run National News agency reported.
Bassil said after meeting with Australian Ambassador Glenn Miles on Wednesday that he was taking measures to "hasten a solution to the matter so that it does not damage Lebanese-Australian relations."
Earlier in the day, Australia's Prime Minister Turnbull said the country respects Lebanon's right to prosecute the Australians but that it is closely working with Lebanese counterparts and Australia's ambassador in Beirut on consular efforts to support the TV crew.
"We are providing them with every support, but of course we respect the Lebanese legal system and their right to investigate and take proceedings if they feel offenses have been committed," Turnbull told reporters. He declined to say whether he thought the TV crew was foolish to get involved in a child custody dispute in Lebanon.
"Wherever you are in the world, you have to be very clear about recognizing that you must comply with the local laws," Turnbull told Perth Radio 6PR.
"Where children are involved in a foreign jurisdiction such as Lebanon, it is the local courts — not the Australian government and much less private citizens — who make decisions about child custody," he added.
The network has said that its crew was in Beirut to film and interview the mother after she was reunited with her children. It has not said whether it paid CARI to snatch the children and smuggle them out of Lebanon by boat.
Reached by the AP on Wednesday, al-Amin said his children were in good health and that he was prohibited from speaking about the case with the media.
Associated Press Writer Rod McGuirk contributed to this report from Canberra, Australia.