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.
The magistrate, Mazard Fortil, left 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.
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.
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.
Silsby waved and smiled faintly to reporters but declined to answer questions as the Baptists were whisked away from the closed court hearing back to the holding cells where they have been held since Saturday. 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.
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.
"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 childrens' 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.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)