Feb 4, 2010 3:40 PM by Bea Karnes, News First 5
A group of U.S. missionaries in Haiti was charged Thursday with child kidnapping and criminal association for allegedly trying to take children illegally out of the earthquake-hit country.
After announcing the charges, Haitian Deputy Prosecutor Jean Ferge Joseph told the 10 Americans their case was being sent to an investigative judge.
"That judge can free you but he can also continue to hold you for further proceedings," the deputy prosecutor told the five men and five women in a hearing.
The 10 members of an Idaho-based Baptist Church were arrested last week on Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic when they tried to cross with a busload of 33 children they said were orphaned by the devastating Jan. 12 quake.
They deny any wrongdoing.
The group's lawyer, Edwin Coq, said the church members face three to nine years in prison if they are found guilty at trial. If there is a trial, it could be three months away.
"We're not 100 percent sure if they will find them guilty. I don't think they will, I don't think there will be a charge," he said.
Earlier, Coq said that nine of his 10 clients were "completely innocent," but added that "if the judiciary were to keep one, it could be the leader of the group." He appeared to be referring to Laura Silsby, who helped organize the mission to Haiti and has spoken for the Americans since they were detained last Friday.
The Idaho-based church group contends it was trying to rescue orphaned and abandoned child victims of the Jan. 12 earthquake. Haitian officials say many of the 33 children found with them at Haiti's border still had parents, though they may have handed over the children willingly.
According to Haitian authorities, the group was trying to cross the border into the Dominican Republic without the required documents.
People in the village of Callebas have contradicted claims that the children, aged between 2 and 12, came from orphanages or were handed over by distant relatives.
They said they had surrendered their children after a local orphanage worker, fluent in English and acting on behalf of the Baptists, convened nearly the entire village of 500 people on a dirt soccer field to present an offer from the Americans.
Isaac Adrien, 20, told his neighbors the missionaries would educate their children in the neighboring Dominican Republic, the villagers said, adding that they were also assured they would be free to visit their children there.
Adrien said he met Silsby in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 26. She told him she was looking for homeless children, he said, and he knew exactly where to find them.
He rushed home to Callebas, where people scrape by growing carrots, peppers and onions. That day, he had a list of 20 children. Many parents said they had jumped at the offer.
"It's only because the bus was full that more children didn't go," said Melanie Augustin, a 58-year-old who gave her 10-year-old daughter, Jovin, to the Americans.
Laurentius Lelly, a 27-year-old computer technician who gave up his two children, ages 4 and 6, said: "I am living in a tent with a friend. My main concern is that if the kids come back I'm not going to be able to feed them."
Lelly said he was worried the Haitian judicial system would not properly investigate the case.
"I would like to find out if these people were really going to help the kids or were trying to steal them," Lelly said.
Representatives of the missionary group said Wednesday from the Dominican Republic that the missionaries "willingly accepted kids they knew were not orphans because the parents said they would starve otherwise."
Prime Minister Max Bellerive has suggested the Americans could be prosecuted in the United States because Haiti's shattered court system may not be able to cope with a trial.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the attempt to bring undocumented children out of Haiti was "unfortunate whatever the motivation" and the Americans should have followed proper procedures. She said U.S. officials were in discussions with Haitian authorities about how to resolve the case.