PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Ten Americans who tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the country last week without the government’s consent have been charged with child abduction and criminal conspiracy, as Haitian officials sought to reassert judicial control after the Jan. 12 earthquake.
The Americans, most of them members of a Baptist congregation from Idaho, had said they intended to rescue Haitian children left parentless in the quake and take them to what they described as an orphanage across the border in the Dominican Republic. But they acknowledged failing to seek approval to remove the children from Haiti, and several of the children have at least one living parent.
The Americans will face a potentially extended legal proceeding in Haiti and could, if convicted, face prison terms of up to 15 years.
In a sign of the cloudy nature of the case, the prosecutor, Mazar Fortil, decided not to pursue what could have been the most serious charge against the group, that of trafficking. The charges will now be considered by an investigative judge, who has up to three months to decide whether to pursue the matter further.
The leader of the group, Laura Silsby, a businesswoman who describes herself as a missionary as well, has also come under scrutiny at home in Idaho, where employees complain of unpaid wages and the state has placed liens on her company bank account.
The lawyer for the group, Edwin Coq, said after a hearing on Thursday that 9 of his 10 clients were “completely innocent,” but that, apparently in a reference to Ms. Silsby, “If the judiciary were to keep one, it could be the leader of the group.”
The Haitian capital lost courthouses, judges, lawyers and its main prison in the earthquake, straining the judiciary along with everything else. Prosecutors said this was the first criminal case to receive a hearing in Port-au-Prince since the natural disaster.
The hearing took place in a hilltop courthouse that had minor cracks in the walls and scores of squatters living outside. A crush of journalists sought access to the defendants on their way into the courthouse, where police officers in riot gear prevented access.
The Americans were transported in two Haitian police vehicles — one labeled “Child Protection Brigade” — from the police station where they have been held since the weekend to Port-au-Prince’s main criminal courthouse. Mr. Coq said beforehand that their immediate release was possible, and the police who transported the detainees took their luggage to the hearing as well in case they were to be freed.
Ms. Silsby, who had helped organize the group’s mission, sounded a hopeful note as she waited to be taken into court, saying, “We’re just trusting God for a positive outcome.”
But during the hearing, Jean Ferge Joseph, a deputy prosecutor, told the Americans that their case was not being dropped and that it would be sent to a judge for further review.
“That judge can free you, but he can also continue to hold you for further proceedings,” the deputy prosecutor said, according to Reuters.
When they received the news, the Americans did not appear distraught, Mr. Coq, their lawyer, said. “They prayed,” he said. “They looked down and prayed.”
Reuters, which had a reporter in the session, said that all 10 of the detainees acknowledged to the prosecutor that they had apparently violated the law when they tried to take the children from Haiti, although they said they were unaware of that until after they were detained.
“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.
Ms. Silsby asked the prosecutor not only to release the group, whose members range in age from 18 to 55, but also to allow them to continue their work in Haiti.
“We simply wanted to help the children,” she said. “We petition the court not only for our freedom, but also for our ability to continue to help.”
As they were led out of the courthouse one by one for their return to jail, some of the Americans smiled as reporters surrounded them. They left without comment.
The Americans were arrested last Friday as they tried to take the 33 children by bus to the Dominican Republic, where they said they were in the process of leasing or building an orphanage. It is unclear if the group had arranged for someplace to house the children in the Dominican Republic.
A Web site for the group, the New Life Children’s Refuge, said that the Haitian children there would stay in a “loving Christian homelike environment” and be eligible for adoption through agencies in the United States.
The children are being taken care of now at SOS Children’s Villages, an Austrian-run orphanage in Port-au-Prince.
The Americans and members of their churches have said that they are innocent of any wrongdoing, and described the case as a misunderstanding. In an interview this week, Ms. Silsby said that the group had come to Haiti to rescue children orphaned by the earthquake, and that “our hearts were in the right place.”
But some of the children had living parents, and some of those parents said that the Baptists had promised simply to educate the youngsters in the Dominican Republic and to allow them to return to Haiti to visit.
Ms. Silsby had made her intentions known to child protection officials, human rights experts and Dominican authorities in Haiti, all of whom warned her that she could be charged with trafficking if she tried to take children out of the country without proper documentation.
Some Haitian leaders have called the Americans kidnappers, but their case has created divisions. Outside the courthouse on Thursday, one onlooker backed the Americans. “The process they followed was wrong, but they were not stealing kids,” said Béatrice St.-Julien. “They came here to help us.”
Until Thursday, Haitian judicial officials had left open the possibility that the group could be returned to the United States for trial, sparing Haiti’s crippled justice system a high-profile criminal prosecution fraught with diplomatic and political land mines.
American officials have talked with Haitian judicial authorities about the case, but it is unclear exactly how much lobbying Washington is doing behind the scenes to affect the outcome. The State Department has said that whether to pursue charges for any possible violations of Haitian law remains a Haitian decision.
One expert said that by pursuing the case Haitian authorities seemed to be trying to make a point.
“Haiti’s decision to prosecute the Baptist missionaries may be motivated, in part, by the need to show its own people and the world that it is a viable entity that is tackling the grave problem of international child abductions in Haiti,” Christopher J. Schmidt, a lawyer with Bryan Cave L.L.P. in St. Louis who has been involved in multiple cases of international kidnapping, said in a statement.
The families of the 10 Americans released a statement on Thursday evening, pleading with the Haitian authorities for lenience.
“We are anxious, fearful and concerned about our family members, especially the young people who are jailed in a foreign country,” the statement said. “Obviously, we do not know details about what happened and didn’t happen on this mission. However, we are absolutely convinced that those who were recruited to join this mission traveled to Haiti to help, not hurt, these children.
“We are pleading to the Haitian Prime Minister to focus his energies on the critical tasks ahead for the country and to forgive mistakes that were made by a group of Americans trying to assist Haiti’s children.”
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