PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Former U.S. President Bill Clinton urged the U.S. and Haitian governments on Friday to resolve the case of 10 American missionaries accused of trying to take children illegally out of quake-hit Haiti.
Clinton, named by the United Nations to coordinate relief efforts for survivors of the devastating January 12 quake, made the appeal during a visit to the shattered Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, his second since last month’s disaster.
The accused U.S. missionaries, most of whom belong to an Idaho-based Baptist church, were arrested a week ago and charged on Thursday with child kidnapping and criminal association.
Haitian authorities say the group tried to take a busload of 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic without any papers proving the minors were orphans or any official permission to take them out of the country.
The missionaries deny any intentional wrongdoing and say they were only trying to help children left destitute by the January 12 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 people, injured some 300,000 and left over a million more homeless.
The Americans’ case is diplomatically sensitive and aid groups complain it has distracted media and world attention away from the struggle to feed and shelter hundreds of thousands of Haitians camped out in wrecked streets.
“What’s important now is for the government of Haiti and the government of the United States to get together and work through this,” Clinton told CNN in Port-au-Prince.
He said he understood the Haitian government’s efforts to try to protect its children from possible child traffickers and unlawful adoptions following the catastrophic quake.
But he also said the missionaries could be telling the truth when they argued they simply wanted to help the children and did not mean to violate any laws. Evidence has emerged that many of the intercepted children were not orphans but were given up by parents who wanted them to have a better life.
“The government of Haiti ... (is) not looking for some big fight here. They just want to protect their children and they also want to make sure they have a good inventory so they don’t send children away that maybe have an aunt or an uncle that have an income,” Clinton said.
“I think they’ll find a way to defuse the crisis and work through this,” he added, but he said the case was not his direct responsibility.
The missionaries, five men and five women, were questioned individually on Friday by investigating judge Bernard Sainvil at the offices of the prosecutor in the city.
Officials said the judge would continue his investigation next Monday and Tuesday, before making a decision on whether to release the 10 or proceed with the case against them.
The missionaries’ lawyer, Edwin Coq, said he had requested the 10 be released provisionally pending the further hearings, but no decision was immediately taken on that.
Coq said the Americans, who had been held at police headquarters up to now, were taken after the questioning on Friday to established prisons — the women to a women’s prison in the Petionville suburb and the men to the quake-damaged central prison in the capital.
The U.S. government, which is spearheading the big relief operation in Haiti, has said it is providing the Americans with consular access and monitoring their case, but it has made clear it does not want to interfere.
“Obviously this is a matter for the Haitian judicial system,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is Bill Clinton’s wife, told reporters in Washington.
Haitian President Rene Preval’s crippled administration, which has been accused by many of its citizens of failing to do enough to help quake survivors, has defended its decision to detain and charge the Americans.
“It is true the country has been brought to its knees by the earthquake, but we still have laws. ... In any case, whoever violates the law has to be sanctioned, whether the violator is a U.S. or European citizen, or someone else,” Justice Minister Paul Denis told Reuters.
The detained Americans were still hoping on Friday they would eventually be released. “We pray to God for the outcome,” said the group’s leader, Laura Silsby.
Another member of the group, which called itself the New Life Children’s Refuge and planned to build an orphanage in the Dominican Republic for the Haitian children, said it was “unfortunate” that world attention was focusing on their case and not the plight of Haiti’s earthquake victims.
“I think the most important thing is to continue to put the focus on the people, the kids who are suffering, because they need help. That’s the reason why we were here in the first place, to help,” Silas Daniel Thompson, 19, told Reuters while he was being taken to see the investigating judge.
Haiti’s government has tightened adoption procedures since the quake, saying it feared unscrupulous traffickers could try to take advantage of the disaster by spiriting away vulnerable children. Officials said they already had reports of trafficking of minors, and even of human organs.
Additional reporting by Tom Brown and Jim Loney in Port-au-Prince and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Cooney