Ten members of a US missionary group who said they were trying to rescue 33 child victims of Haiti's devastating earthquake have been charged with child kidnapping and criminal association.
Their lawyer Edwin Coq said after a court hearing that a judge found sufficient evidence to charge the Americans, who were arrested on Friday at Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic.
Group leader Laura Silsby has said they were trying to take orphans and abandoned children to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. She acknowledged they had not sought permission from officials, but said they just meant to help victims of the quake.
The children taken from the group, ranging in age from 2 to 12, were being cared for at the Austrian-run SOS Children's Village in Port-au-Prince in Haiti.
The US citizens, most of them members of an Idaho-based church group, were whisked away from the closed court hearing to jail in Port-au-Prince. Silsby waved and smiled faintly to reporters but declined to answer questions.
Coq said that under Haiti's legal system there won't be an open trial, but a judge will consider the evidence and could render a verdict in about three months.
Coq said a Haitian prosecutor told him the Americans were charged because they had the children in their possession.
Each kidnapping count carries a possible sentence of five to 15 years in prison. Each criminal association count has a potential sentence of three to nine years.
Coq said that nine of the 10 knew nothing about the alleged scheme, or that paperwork for the children was not in order.
“I'm going to do everything I can to get the nine out,” Coq said. That would still leave mission leader Laura Silsby facing charges.
State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said in Washington the US 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 US for prosecution.
Several parents of the children in Callebas, a quake-wracked Haitian village near the capital, said they had handed over their children willingly because they were unable to feed or clothe their children and the missionaries promised to give them a better life.
Their accounts contradicted statements by Silsby, of Meridian, Idaho. In a jailhouse interview on Saturday Silsby said most of the children had been delivered to the Americans by distant relatives, while some came from orphanages that had collapsed.
“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 said.