Ten members of a USmissionary group who said they were trying to rescue 33 child victimsof Haiti's devastating earthquake were charged with child kidnappingand criminal association on Thursday, their lawyer said.
EdwinCoq said after a court hearing that a judge found sufficient evidenceto charge the Americans, who were arrested Friday at Haiti's borderwith the Dominican Republic. Coq attended Thursday's hearing andrepresents the entire group in Haiti.
Group leader Laura Silsbyhas said they were trying to take orphans and abandoned children to anorphanage in the neighboring Dominican Republic. She acknowledged theyhad not sought permission from Haitian officials, but said they justmeant to help victims of the quake.
The children taken from thegroup, ranging in age from 2 to 12, were being cared for at theAustrian-run SOS Children's Village in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday.
The UScitizens, most of them members of an Idaho-based church group, werewhisked away from the closed court hearing to jail in Port-au-Prince,the capital. Silsby waved and smiled faintly to reporters but declinedto answer questions.
Coq said that under Haiti's legal system,there won't be an open trial, but a judge will consider the evidenceand could render a verdict in about three months.
Coq said aHaitian prosecutor told him the Americans were charged because they hadthe children in their possession. No one from the Haitian governmentcould be reached immediately for comment.
Each kidnapping countcarries a possible sentence of five to 15 years in prison. Eachcriminal association count has a potential sentence of three to nineyears.
Coq said that nine of the 10 knew nothing about the alleged scheme, or that paperwork for the children was not in order.
"I'mgoing to do everything I can to get the nine out," Coq said. That wouldstill leave mission leader Laura Silsby facing charges.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington the USwas open to discuss "other legal avenues" for the defendants — anapparent reference to the Haitian prime minister's earlier suggestionthat Haiti could consider sending the Americans back to the UnitedStates for prosecution.
Several parents of the children inCallebas, a quake-wracked Haitian village near the capital, told TheAssociated Press Wednesday they had handed over their childrenwillingly because they were unable to feed or clothe their children andthe American missionaries promised to give them a better life.
Their accounts contradicted statements by Silsby, of Meridian, Idaho.
Ina jailhouse interview Saturday, Silsby told the AP that most of thechildren had been delivered to the Americans by distant relatives,while some came from orphanages that had collapsed in the quake.
"Theyare very precious kids that have lost their homes and families and areso deeply in need of, most of all, God's love and his compassion," shesaid.
In Callebas, parents said a local orphanage worker, fluentin English and acting on behalf of the Baptists, had convened nearlythe entire village of 500 people on a dirt soccer field to present theAmericans' offer.
Isaac Adrien, 20, told his neighbors themissionaries would educate their children in the neighboring DominicanRepublic, the villagers said, adding that they were also assured theywould be free to visit their children there.
Many parents jumped at the offer.
Adriensaid he met Silsby in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 26. She told him she waslooking for homeless children, he said, and he knew exactly where tofind them.
He rushed home to Callebas, where people scrape bygrowing carrots, peppers and onions. That very day, he had a list of 20children.
As they loaded children onto a bus in Callebas on Jan.28, the Americans took down contact information for all the familiesand assured them a relative would be able to visit them in theDominican Republic.
The Americans' journey began last summerafter Silsby and her former nanny, 24-year-old Charisa Coulter,resolved to establish an orphanage for Haitian children in theDominican Republic. Coulter is among the jailed Americans.
Theybegan buying up used clothing and collecting donations from theirCentral Valley Baptist Church in Meridian and in November, Silsbyregistered the New Life Children's Refuge Inc., the nonprofitorganization coordinating the rescue mission. It listed the address ofher now-foreclosed home in Meridian as its headquarters.
Then thequake hit. Silsby and Coulter moved into high gear, gathering donationsand assembling a team to go into Haiti and urgently take out children,the younger woman's father, Mel Coulter, told the AP from his home inKuna, Idaho.
The group packed 40 plastic bins of donated goodsinto a U-Haul trailer and drove to Salt Lake City on Jan. 22, wherethey took a flight to the Dominican Republic. They made their way toHaiti, where four days later, they were introduced to Adrien.
Adrien,who had served as the go-between and translator for the missionaries,said he had no knowledge of the group's larger plans; villagers saidthey were told none of their children would be offered for adoption.
A Haitian-born pastor who said he worked as an unpaid consultant for the group insisted the Baptists had done nothing wrong.
TheRev. Jean Sainvil said some of the children were orphans and might havebeen put up for adoption. Children with parents were to be kept in theDominican Republic, and would not lose contact with their families,Sainvil said in Atlanta.
"Everybody agreed that they knew wherethe children were going. The parents were told, and we confirmed theywould be allowed to see the children and even take them back if needbe," he said.
Sainvil stressed that in Haiti it is not uncommon for parents who can't support their children to send them to orphanages.
EvenPrime Minister Max Bellerive has said he recognized the Americans maysimply have been well-meaning who believed their charitable Christianintent justified trying to remove the children from quake-crippledHaiti.
Only minutes before the charges, the Americans' Dominicanlawyer, Jorge Puello, had said he expected at least nine of the 10 tobe released and said he was arranging a charter flight for them fromSanto Domingo, the Dominican capital.After the Haitian lawyer's announcement, Puello could not be reached by telephone for comment.
"I'mat the airport (in Santo Domingo) and we're getting the plane ready.We're just waiting for the green light," Puello said. "I spoke to asource inside the jail — a government official — who said nine would bereleased but one would be held for further investigation."