Haiti judge questions jailed Americans

/ Source: NBC News and news services

A judge on Tuesday questioned some of the 10 Americans arrested in Haiti while trying to bring a busload of children across the border to the Dominican Republic.

The investigating magistrate queried the women detainees for several hours Tuesday and will follow up with the five men on Wednesday, according to the Haiti's communications minister. No lawyers were present, and the Americans have yet to be charged.

Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue said the evidence will be presented to a Haitian district attorney to decide whether to file charges.

The detainees, Baptists from Idaho, say they were only trying to help orphans survive the earthquake. But legal experts say taking children across a border without documents or government permission can be considered child trafficking.

On Monday, Haiti's prime minister said the missionaries knew that "what they were doing was wrong."

Prime Minister Max Bellerive told The Associated Press that his country is open to having the Americans face prosecution in the United States, since most government buildings — including Haiti's courts — were crippled by the monster earthquake.

"It is clear now that they were trying to cross the border without papers. It is clear now that some of the children have live parents," Bellerive said. "And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong."

If they were acting in good faith — as the Americans claim — "perhaps the courts will try to be more lenient with them," he said.

Abduction or adoption?
U.S. Embassy officials would not say whether Washington would accept hosting judicial proceedings for the Americans.

Cheryl Mills, counselor to the secretary of state, said Tuesday she is not aware of any conversations with the Haitian government about prosecuting the Americans in the U.S.

Mills would not speculate whether the missionaries were legitimately trying to help the children, saying only that, "I appreciate that obviously in this instance individuals were making their own assessment about how they best could participate."

Haitian officials insist some prosecution is needed to help deter child trafficking, which many fear will flourish in the chaos caused by the devastating Jan. 12 quake. The government and aid groups are still struggling to get food, water, shelter and basic health care to hundreds of thousands of survivors, and many parents are desperate to get help for their children.

U.S. diplomats have had "unlimited" access to the 10 detainees, and will monitor any court proceedings, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. 

Nine of the 10 Americans initially met with a Haitian judge on Monday but because of uncertainty in the quality of translation, another interpreter was sought for further meetings.

Humanitarian aim?
Members of the church group insisted they were only trying to save abandoned children — but few appear to have had any significant experience with Haiti, international charity work or international adoption regulations.

Pastor Clint Henry told the TODAY show on Tuesday that the church members were doing what they thought was right and what "they thought they had permission for."

Since their arrest Friday near the border, the church group has been held inside two small concrete rooms in the same judicial police headquarters building where ministers have makeshift offices and give disaster response briefings.

Investigators have been trying to determine how the Americans got the children, and whether any of the traffickers that have plagued the impoverished country were involved. Their detained spokeswoman, Laura Silsby, said they were "just trying to do the right thing," but she conceded she had not obtained the required passports, birth certificates and adoption certificates for them — a near impossible challenge in the post-quake mayhem.

'I am not an orphan'
The 33 kids, ranging in age from 2 months to 12 years, arrived with their names written in tape on their shirts at a children's home where some told aid workers they have surviving parents. Haitian officials said they were trying to reunite them.

The prime minister said some of those parents may have knowingly given their kids to the Americans in hopes they would reach the United States — a not uncommon wish for poor families in a country that already had an estimated 380,000 orphans before the quake.

Haiti's overwhelmed government has halted all adoptions unless they were in motion before the earthquake amid fears that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to being seized and sold. Bellerive's personal authorization is now required for the departure of any child.

The arrested Americans' churches are part of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant denomination, which has extensive humanitarian programs worldwide, but they decided to mount their own "rescue mission" following the earthquake.