PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Ten U.S. Baptist missionaries were charged with kidnapping Thursday for trying to take 33 children out of Haiti to a hastily arranged refuge just as officials were trying to protect children from predators in the chaos of a great earthquake.
The Haitian lawyer who represents the 10 Americans portrayed nine of his clients as innocents caught up in a scheme they did not understand. But attorney Edwin Coq did not defend the actions of the group leader, Laura Silsby, though he continued to represent her.
“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.”
The Americans, most members of two Idaho churches, said they were rescuing abandoned children and orphans from a nation that UNICEF says had 380,000 even before the catastrophic Jan. 12 quake.
But at least two-thirds of the children, who range in age from 2 to 12, have parents who gave them away because they said the Americans promised the children a better life.
The investigating judge, who interviewed the missionaries Tuesday and Wednesday, found sufficient evidence to charge them for trying to take the children across the border into the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without documentation, Coq said.
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 and a verdict could take three months.
U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten showed up after 5 p.m. outside judicial police headquarters, where the Americans are being held and where President Rene Preval and top ministers now have temporary offices because theirs were destroyed in the quake.
“The U.S. justice system cannot interfere in what’s going on with these Americans right now,” he told reporters. “The Haitian justice system will do what it has to do.”
U.S. consular officials have been making regular visits to the missionaries.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the Americans’ behavior “unfortunate whatever the motivation.”
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. 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.
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.
Silsby had begun planning last summer 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.
Their 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.
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