PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haitian authorities were considering on Monday how to deal with a group of American missionaries accused of trying to illegally take children out of the quake-shattered Caribbean country.
The Baptist missionaries, who were arrested late on Friday, deny Haitian charges they were engaged in child trafficking and insist they were only trying to help vulnerable orphans left abandoned and destitute by the January 12 quake.
The 10 members of an Idaho-based church group were detained on Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic when they tried to cross with a busload of 33 children they said were orphaned by the devastating earthquake.
Haitian authorities, who have expressed fears that child traffickers may take advantage of the chaos and loss caused by the earthquake that killed up to 200,000 people, said the Americans had no documents proving the children were orphans or giving them permission to take them out of the country.
A local judge was reviewing the evidence against the group of five men and five women, Communications Minister Marie Lassegue told reporters.
“We have information about people trying to steal kids to take them out of the country, which is the reason why the government has decided to reinforce security,” Lassegue said, explaining the arrests.
She said the judge would decide whether the Americans would be tried in Haiti or if they should be sent home to the United States for trial because of the damage inflicted on the courts and staff of the Haitian judicial system by the quake.
With the United States spearheading a huge relief effort to help hundreds of thousands of Haitian quake victims, the case could be diplomatically sensitive at a time when U.S. charities are pouring millions of dollars of donations into Haiti.
Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, who has cited reports of child trafficking and even human organ trafficking since the quake, has called the arrested Americans “kidnappers.” But he has acknowledged the possibility they were misguided but acting in good faith to help the children.
The missionaries, who admit they had no documents, approvals or passports for the Haitian infants, insist they just wanted to help them by taking them over the border to an orphanage they were establishing in the Dominican Republic.
“They really didn’t have any paperwork ... I did not understand that that would really be required,” the leader of the arrested group, Laura Silsby, told CNN.
GROUP CITES ‘GOD’S PURPOSE’
She vehemently denied any intention of kidnapping or trafficking the children, which include a baby and children up to 12 years old. “We literally all gave up everything we had, you know, income, and used our own funds to come here and help these children,” Silsby said.
“God is the one who called us to come here and we just really believed that this was his purpose,” said Carla Thompson, another member of the group, which called itself the New Life Children’s Refuge.
The Reverend Clint Henry of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Idaho to which the group belongs also protested their innocence, saying their intention was “upright and pure”.
“It is certainly not our interest to traffic children ... we are simply trying to help,” he told CNN.
Bellerive said some of the children traveling with the group when they were stopped had asked for their parents and appeared not to be orphans.
The case of the Americans resembles that of a group of French charity workers who were detained in Chad in 2007 and accused of trying to fly 103 children out of the African country without authorization.
The six French members of the Zoe’s Ark group said the children were “war orphans” from Sudan’s Darfur, but U.N. officials said many were Chadian and were not orphans.
Chad initially sentenced the six to hard labor terms, but they were subsequently repatriated to France and released after a pardon granted by the Chadian president.
Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Cooney
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