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Haiti charges U.S. church members with kidnap

Image: U.S. American missionaries in Haiti
American missionaries, accused of illegally trying to take children out of Haiti, pray before hearing the charging decision from a Haitian prosecutor in Port-au-Prince on Thursday.Joseph Guyler Delva / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News and news services

Ten U.S. missionaries in Haiti were 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 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.

As the decision was announced, the Americans, most of whom belong to an Idaho-based Baptist church, appeared stunned, and some shook their heads in disbelief.

They 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.

The Americans, who range in age from 18 to 55, acknowledged under questioning from the prosecutor they had apparently committed a crime by seeking to take the children across the border without proper documents. But they said they were unaware of that until after their arrest.

"We didn't know what we were doing was illegal. We did not have any intention to violate the law. But now we understand it's a crime," said Paul Robert Thompson, a pastor who led the group in prayer during a break in the session.

'Help the children'
Group leader Laura Silsby told the hearing: "We simply wanted to help the children. We petition the court not only for our freedom but also for our ability to continue to help."

Most of the Americans, who have been in jail since last Friday, were covered with severe mosquito bites. The prosecutor asked them at one point if they wanted to see a doctor.

After the hearing, they were whisked away to jail in Port-au-Prince.

Haitian authorities said the group lacked the authorization and travel documents needed to take the children out of the country. 

The group's Haitian lawyer, Edwin Coq, who attended Thursday's hearing, portrayed nine of his clients as innocents caught up in a scheme they did not understand. But Coq did not defend the actions of the group leader, Silsby, who helped organize the mission to Haiti and has spoken for the Americans since they were detained last Friday.

"I'm going to do everything I can to get the nine out. They were naive. They had no idea what was going on and they did not know that they needed official papers to cross the border," Coq said. "But Silsby did."

Each was charged with one count of kidnapping, which carries a sentence of five to 15 years in prison, and one of criminal association, punishable by three to nine years. Coq said the case would be assigned a judge, who will consider the evidence and could render a verdict in about three months.

The magistrate, Mazard Fortil, left the hearing without making a statement. Social Affairs Minister Jeanne Bernard Pierre, who has harshly criticized the missionaries, refused to comment. The government's communications minister, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, said only that the next court date had not been set.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said the U.S. government was still waiting for a report from its embassy.

"But the 10 are accused of violating Haitian law and the case is proceeding under Haitian law through a transparent judicial process," Duguid said.

'Other legal avenues'
Silsby has said the church members were trying to take orphans and abandoned children to an orphanage in the neighboring Dominican Republic. She acknowledged they may have lacked paperwork but said they just meant to help victims of the quake.

Haitian officials say many of the 33 still had parents, though they may have handed over the children willingly.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington the U.S. was monitoring the case and was open to discuss "other legal avenues" for the defendants — an apparent reference to the Haitian prime minister's earlier suggestion that Haiti could consider sending the Americans back to the United States for prosecution.

But it's unlikely the Americans could be tried back home, according to Christopher J. Schmidt, an expert on international child kidnapping law in St. Louis, Mo. U.S. statutes may not even apply, he said, since the children never crossed an international border.

Fate of childrenSilsby waved and smiled faintly to reporters but declined to answer questions as the Baptists were whisked away from the closed court hearing back to their holding cells. People rendered homeless by the quake sat idly under tarps in the parking lot, smoke rising from a cooking fire.

Coq complained about conditions at the judicial police lockup where the Americans were being held. He said they are sleeping on the floor without blankets and aren't being provided with adequate food. He said he had delivered pizza and sandwiches.

Silsby had already been planning to create an orphanage for Haitian children in the Dominican Republic. When the earthquake struck she recruited other church members to help kick her plans into high gear. The 10 Americans rushed to Haiti and spent a week gathering children for their project.

Most of the children came from the quake-ravaged village of Callebas, where residents told The Associated Press that they handed over their children to the Americans because they were unable to feed or clothe them after the earthquake. They said the missionaries promised to educate the children and let relatives visit.

Residents of the mountain village of Callebas, Haiti, including Melanie Augustin, left, and Sorianta Leantus, second from right, pose for a photo Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2010. Parents in this struggling village said they willingly handed 20 children over to the American missionaries who promised the kids a better life, contradicting claims by the Baptist group's leader that the children came from orphanages and distant relatives. Augustin gave away her 10-year-old daughter, Jozin, and Leantus, who's pregnant with her third child, gave away her a 6-year-old daughter to the American missionaries who were later arrested by Haitian authorities after trying to cross the border with the children without the required paperwork. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)Ariana Cubillos / AP

Conflicting storiesTheir stories contradicted Silsby's account that the children came from collapsed orphanages or were handed over by distant relatives. She said the Americans believed they had all the paperwork needed — documents she said she obtained in the Dominican Republic — to take the children out of Haiti.

"They are very precious kids that have lost their homes and families and are so deeply in need of, most of all, God's love and his compassion," she told the AP in a jailhouse interview Saturday.

The assistant pastor of Silsby's church in Meridian, Idaho, said neither Central Valley Baptist Church nor any of the missionaries' relatives had any comment about the decision to charge the Americans. Drew Ham had defended the missionaries on Wednesday, saying they were putting the children' interests first at a time of chaos.

The children are being cared for at the Austrian-run SOS Children's Village in Port-au-Prince. An official there, Patricia Vargas, said none of the children who are old enough to talk have said they were orphans.