PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A U.S. missionary should spend six months in prison for her failed attempt to remove 33 children from Haiti following the Jan. 12 earthquake, a prosecutor said Thursday on the first day of her trial.
Prosecutor Sonel Jean-Francois told the court that Laura Silsby knew she was breaking the law by trying to take the children without proper documents to an orphanage she was starting in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
“Laura recognized she violated the law,” Jean-Francois said as lawyers and a small group of spectators crowded into a stiflingly hot tent in the parking lot of the quake-damaged courthouse.
He spoke after the Idaho woman testified. Silsby, who was leader of a group of Baptists detained by authorities, was the only person to testify on the first day of the trial. She spent much of the rest of the session reading the Bible.
The 40-year-old businesswoman told the court she thought the children were orphans whose homes were destroyed in the earthquake. An Associated Press investigation later revealed all the children had at least one living parent, who had turned their children over to the group in hopes of securing better lives for them.
“One week after the earthquake I left my family and my home to help children that had been orphaned in the earthquake,” Silsby said. “We came here with a heart to help.”
Silsby was originally charged with kidnapping and criminal association. She now faces one count of arranging illegal travel under a 1980 statute restricting travel out of Haiti signed by then-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.
A six-month sentence is the minimum jail time recommended under the law. She would receive credit for time served if convicted and sentenced to prison, prosecutors told the AP.
Silsby has been in custody since Jan. 29, when she and nine other Americans were detained at the Dominican border. The other missionaries have all been released and charges against them dismissed.
The Americans’ arrest came as the Haitian government was trying to control adoptions to prevent the trafficking of children after the earthquake, which killed a government-estimated 230,000 to 300,000 people and left some 1.3 million homeless.
Silsby sat quietly through Thursday’s proceedingswhile her Haitian lawyers argued with the prosecution.
The missionary told the judge that she met the children for the first time in front of a flattened building and described being turned away from closed government ministries in her attempt to get them documents.
“They said there was nobody there to help me,” Silsby said.