SYDNEY (AP) — An Australian media outlet on Thursday launched an internal investigation into its involvement in a bungled attempt to take an Australian woman's children from their Lebanese father, shortly after the woman and the Australian TV crew were released on bail from a Beirut jail in a dramatic climax to the international child custody battle.
Hugh Marks, CEO of Australia's Channel 9, said the company would conduct a review to determine what went wrong and why the channel failed in its duty to protect its four-person "60 Minutes" team, which was in Lebanon to cover Australian mother Sally Faulkner's bid to get her two young children back.
"It is important to reiterate that at no stage did anyone from Nine or 60 Minutes intend to act in any way that made them susceptible to charges that they breached the law or to become part of the story that is Sally's story," Marks said in a statement. "But we did become part of the story and we shouldn't have."
The release of Faulkner and the TV crew came after Faulkner's estranged husband and the father of their two children, Ali al-Amin, announced he had dropped attempted kidnapping charges against the five 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 crew 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.
"I'm just so glad to be out of there," Faulkner told Channel 9 in an interview filmed inside the van.
Their release was the latest in an international saga that included a controversial "child recovery agency" and gripped headlines in Australia and the Middle East.
The five Australians are implicated in the operation to seize the children from al-Amin two weeks ago. Two Britons and two Lebanese have also been charged, and they remain in jail.
Faulkner has previously said al-Amin moved the children, aged 3 and 5, from Australia to Lebanon without her permission. On Wednesday, she surrendered any custody claims in Lebanon as part of a deal struck with al-Amin in front of a judge, 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 favor from a Lebanese religious court. "Taking into consideration the Lebanese law, he's in the right."
The scandal has been a public relations disaster for Channel 9, which has faced intense backlash in Australia from the public and the media. Many have questioned the station's ethics for involving itself in a criminal act and over accusations the channel funded the child-snatching operation.
"60 Minutes" has a long history of paying sources for interviews, but the head of the child recovery agency said Channel 9 went much further in this case, directly paying his company to finance the operation. Nine has declined to comment on the allegation.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed relief at the release of Faulkner and the crew and thanked Lebanese authorities for their help, but issued a warning to Australians traveling overseas.
"All Australians, regardless of what they do or who they work for, should recognize that when they are outside of Australia, they must obey the laws of the country in which they are visiting," Turnbull told reporters.
Al-Amin said he would raise the children in Lebanon and would allow Faulkner to visit them. Faulkner is expected to meet Ali and their children at the courthouse Thursday, before leaving the country the day after.
Investigative Judge Rami Abdullah said the state still has to review whether to drop public charges against the suspects, but added that Faulkner and the journalists were free to leave Lebanon once they posted bail. They will be expected to return to Lebanon to stand trial if the public charges are not dropped, he said.
Others detained in the case were still behind bars. British-Australian Adam Whittington, who heads the Britain-based agency Child Abduction Recovery International and is alleged to have masterminded the operation, remains jailed, along with another Briton, Greg Michael.
Their lawyer said their outcomes should be tied to the fate of the TV crew.
"Both of them came here based on instructions from Channel 9, who paid for their program," said the attorney, Joe Karam.
According to Whittington, Channel 9 deposited over $100,000 in fees to his agency's account to finance the operation.
Two Lebanese men also remain jailed. 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 that claim, challenging Mohsin outside the court: "Ask (Hamza) how long he was sitting outside my building, observing me."
The children at the center of the case were snatched from their grandmother — al-Amin's mother — and a domestic worker while on their way to school in Beirut two weeks ago. Security camera footage showed assailants knocking the grandmother to the ground before driving off with the children. A man was seen filming from the car.
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.
Issa reported from Beirut.