Ibtissam Berri, whose grandchildren were abducted by a “recovery team” allegedly connected to 60 Minutes

Channel Nine has declined to say whether or not it paid a child recovery agency to abduct two children in Lebanon, as four of its staff remain under arrest in Lebanon.

Tara Brown, who won a Walkley last year for her work on 60 Minutes, producer Stephen Rice, cameraman Ben Williamson and sound recordist David Ballment were arrested last Thursday after being identified as part of a botched operation to abduct two children from their Lebanese father, Ali el-Amien, and reunite them with their Australian mother, Sally Faulkner.

Lebanese police have told the media they have a signed statement from a member of the “recovery team” saying the network paid $115,000 to undertake the operation. The network, police allege, intended to show the abduction “as a good thing“.

During the operation, caught on camera, the two children were bundled into a car while they were out with their grandmother, who says she was shoved aside and hit with a pistol (authorities say no firearms were found with the arrested recovery team, according to the ABC). According to reports, the Nine team were fully appraised of the operation and planned to film it live but arrived late because of traffic.

Crikey asked the Nine Network whether it had paid for the abduction of the children or whether the network had paid a sum to Faulkner, who then paid for the abduction. We also asked whether Nine News director Darren Wick or CEO Hugh Marks had signed off on any payment for the story (as would be expected for a story involving this sum). “We don’t make comments about payment for stories, ever,” a spokesperson said.

The Nine spokesperson said the Nine employees were visited daily by DFAT and were “all very comfortable”. “They’re being well respected and looked after. And DFAT is being fantastically supportive. We’re working to ensure they’re safe return as soon as possible.” The ABC has reported that at one point Brown and Faulkner were shackled together.

The extraordinary allegation that Nine paid for children to be abducted has made considerable waves in the Australian media. The children’s father told the ABC: “What if someone armed passed by and saw the scene and started to fire? We are in Lebanon here. If they started to shoot, they could have hit one of the children. They could have shot my mother.”

But Nine sources say it’s difficult for the network to comment at this point. The situation is complicated by the fact that the Nine employees, Faulkner and the recovery team are also in police custody. Any comment could inflame the legal situation or place others, such as Faulkner, in jeopardy.

Michelle McDermott, a lawyer with Armstrong Legal who specialises in family law, told Crikey this morning that international child abduction cases were becoming far more common in Australia and have come to the attention of the Law Council of Australia, which has recently put out a handbook on the issue.

Even in the absence of a divorce settlement awarding joint custody, it is illegal to take children out of Australia without the permission of both parents, she told Crikey. As to whether it’s illegal to commission a child recovery agency to get them back, that’s more complicated.

“It’s what actions that agency do that’s the problem,” she said. There’s a wide variety of organisations that work to reunite children with one parent over the other. Some organisations work through proper channels, including using the protections in the Hague convention on child abduction. Agencies that break the law in the countries they are operating in have to face the consequences of breaking domestic law.

Issues arise because many countries are not signatories to the Hague convention, she says, including India, China and, relevant to this case, Lebanon.

“Lebanon is not a convention country. That’s the problem. If it had been a convention country, you could have gone straight away to the Central Authority. They would have worked to get the return for wrongful removal,” McDermott said.

McDermott says she advises clients who fear of a parent from a non-member country might abduct the children to put their children on the airport watch list, which prevents them from leaving the country. Though she acknowledges it’s easy to say this in retrospect — many parents have little idea their children are about to be abducted, or what they can do to stop it.

In cases where child recovery agencies are successful, it’s quite rare for there to be any follow-up with authorities in Australia. “Australian police certainly wouldn’t do anything”, McDermott said, when asked if Australian police are likely to follow up illegal acts committed in other countries during the recovery process.

Peter Fray

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