How 60 Min­utes wrecked my life

TV pro­gram ‘left Beirut driver to rot’

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS - ELLEN WHINNET T BEIRUT

THE taxi driver used by 60 Min­utes in its bun­gled child-kid­nap­ping at­tempt in Beirut is a bro­ken man, deeply in debt and fac­ing crim­i­nal charges, two years af­ter he says Chan­nel 9 aban­doned him in a Le­banese jail.

Khaled Bar­bour, now 34, lost his job and racked up al­most $15,000 in legal bills when he spent six months in jail for his role in the failed at­tempt to get back the young chil­dren of Aus­tralian wo­man Sally Faulkner in Beirut in April 2016.

He said his life was now a “dis­as­ter’’ and he had no money, strug­gled to find work and had to sleep each night at a fire sta­tion, where he has vol­un­teered as a Civil De­fence fire­fighter for 17 years.

“It de­stroyed my life,’’ he told The Sun­day Tele­graph. “I had never been to a po­lice sta­tion and all of a sud­den I am in prison.

“I didn’t even know they were go­ing to do a kid­nap­ping. God will take his re­venge on them.’’

Two years af­ter the at­tempt to snatch Ms Faulkner’s chil­dren Noah, then three, and La­hela, then five, from the streets of Beirut, Mr Bar­bour said no one from Nine had tried to con­tact him — and hadn’t even paid him the $200 he was promised that day.

He is unable to find work with a taxi com­pany due to his no­to­ri­ety and now has to work as a free­lance driver, rent­ing a taxi that costs him $43 a day.

He feels used and aban­doned by Nine, which got its crew and Ms Faulkner out of jail within 14 days but left him and their lo­cal fixer, Mo­hammed Hamza, be­hind.

The pair were sent to the no­to­ri­ous Ebbe jail be­fore serv­ing out their time at Aley Prison, in the moun­tains about 20 min­utes from Beirut. “I served six months (mi­nus) one day’’ he said through an in­ter­preter. “We are still un­der trial but re­leased on bail.’’

Mr Bar­bour’s lawyer Yusuf Lah- houd said the pair would wait be­tween three and five years “at a min­i­mum’’ be­fore a judge made the fi­nal de­ci­sion on in­no­cence or guilt.

“60 Min­utes bring him and put him in this sit­u­a­tion,’’ he said. “He’s in­no­cent. He knows noth­ing. It was him as a taxi driver.’’

Mr Lah­houd said while Mr Bar­bour was tech­ni­cally free on bail, his “men­tal sit­u­a­tion’’ was a prob­lem.

Ner­vous and chainsmok­ing, Mr Bar­bour said: “I don’t trust any­one any­more af­ter what hap­pened. Now the only per­son I trust is my lawyer. I am in debt. I paid al­most $US11,000 ($15,000) for the lawyers and for liv­ing in the prison. And I was kicked out of my job.’’

Mr Bar­bour is di­vorced from his wife and fears his six-yearold son may not be able to at­tend school next year, be­cause he does not have enough money to as­sist with fees. His mother fell ill with stress.

“It’s a dis­as­ter,’’ he said. “I will never for­get what hap­pened. Ev­ery­one was talk­ing about us in Le­banon. The worst mo­ment was when they had us in a con­voy go­ing to see the judge and I found 60 TV jour­nal­ists wait­ing for us. One TV sta­tion spent six days do­ing live broad­casts un­der my house.’’

Mr Bar­bour re­peated his ear­lier state­ment — that he had been asked by Mr Hamza to drive a group of tourists but, when he ar­rived, was told to fol­low their SUV.

He said he pan­icked when he saw the group grab the chil­dren off the street near their school but was re­as­sured when he was told Ms Faulkner had a court or­der and the chil­dren’s father, Le­banese man Ali Elamine, had breached the or­der and re­fused to re­turn the chil­dren to Aus­tralia. “I knew (some­thing was wrong) af­ter all of them were ar­rested,’’ he said. “I didn’t know them. I didn’t help them.’’

60 Min­utes re­porter Tara Brown, cam­era­man Ben Wil­liamson, for­mer Chan­nel 9 pro­ducer Stephen Rice, sound en­gi­neer David Ball­ment and Ms Faulkner were re­leased af­ter 14 days in prison. Chan­nel 9 was able to se­cure their re­lease by pay­ing $500,000 to Mr Elamine, who dropped the per­sonal charges against them.

Bri­tish-Aus­tralian for­mer sol­dier Adam Whit­ting­ton, who planned the kid­nap, and his con­tact Craig Michael, from Cyprus, also left Le­banon af­ter serv­ing four months and five months re­spec­tively in jail, while two other sus­pects, Mohammad Hamza’s brother Ahmed and Ro­ma­nian Scurtu Bog­dan, were never caught but were charged in ab­sen­tia.

Mr Whit­ting­ton has pro­duced in­voices he says shows Nine paid him $115,000 to mas­ter­mind the planned kid­nap.

A Nine spokes­woman did not an­swer ques­tions about re­spon­si­bil­i­ties the network had for the lo­cal men, say­ing ques­tions should be di­rected to Mr Whit­ting­ton, who had hired them.

Mr Whit­ting­ton said: “From the mo­ment of our ar­rest in Le­banon to this day we have never heard a word from Chan­nel 9. The legal trial in Le­banon is on­go­ing so I can­not com­ment any fur­ther.

“To this day what never leaves my mind was the ex­cite­ment lit­tle La­hela and Noah ex­pressed at be­ing re­united with their mother, only to be cru­elly snatched back 24 hours later.

“That’s the real story here, two in­no­cent chil­dren be­ing with­held ... from their lov­ing mother. Aus­tralian laws need to change to make it a crime to re­tain Aus­tralian chil­dren over­seas from a hol­i­day.’’

Mr Elamine de­clined to dis­cuss the case. Ms Faulkner also said she could not com­ment.

Sally Faulkner and her chil­dren La­hela and Noah. Taxi driver Khaled Bar­bour. TV jour­nal­ist and 60 Min­utes re­porter Tara Brown was re­leased from jail af­ter 14 days.

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