PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - A Haitian judge on Tuesday questioned a group of U.S. Baptist missionaries arrested trying to leave Haiti with a busload of children they gathered from the disaster zone.
The investigating magistrate met with the five women for several hours at judicial police headquarters, where they are jailed, and will follow up with the five men on Wednesday, according to the Haiti’s communications minister. No lawyers were present.
The judge is to report to a district attorney, who decides if the Americans are to be formally charged with a crime.
Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue said the evidence will be presented to a Haitian district attorney to decide whether to file charges. She denied allegations by an attorney for the Americans that they were being subject to “inhumane” conditions.
The Baptists from Idaho say they were only trying to help orphans survive the earthquake. But legal experts say taking children across a border without documents or government permission can be considered child trafficking.
At the SOS Children’s Village orphanage where authorities are protecting the 33 children, regional director Patricia Vargas said none who are old enough and willing to talk said they are parentless: “Up until now we have not encountered any who say they are an orphan.”
Vargas said most of the children are between 3 and 6 years old, and unable to provide phone numbers or any other details about their origins. She said reports that the orphanage had turned some of the children over to their parents were untrue. To do so would disturb the judicial investigation, Vargas said.
The Americans apparently enlisted a clergyman who went knocking on doors asking people if they wanted to give away their children, the director of Haiti’s social welfare agency, Jeanne Bernard Pierre, told The Associated Press.
“One child said to me, ’When they came knocking on our door asking for children, my mom decided to give me away because we are six children and by giving me away she would have only five kids to care for,”’ Bernard Pierre said.
Many of the children, said SOS Children’s Villages spokesman George Willeit, came from an orphanage near the airport.
Prime Minister Max Bellerive has suggested the Americans could be prosecuted in the United States because Haiti’s shattered court system may not be able to cope with a trial.
“It is clear now that they were trying to cross the border without papers. It is clear now that some of the children have live parents. And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong,” Bellerive told the AP.
The White House has said the case remains in Haitian hands for now.
Central Valley Baptist Church Assistant Pastor Drew Ham in Idaho called Tuesday for their immediate release, saying questioning them without lawyers violates the Haitian Constitution.
The U.S. government could claim jurisdiction to try them in the United States, but one expert on international abductions doubts it will happen, since prosecutors are likely to take into account the mitigating circumstances.
“They have obviously made a huge mistake by unilaterally going into Haiti and taking children without the permission and knowledge of the Haitian government. It’s a crime in Haiti and anywhere in the world to take or abduct children even if the underlying intentions were humanitarian or good in nature,” said Christopher Schmidt, an attorney with Bryan Cave LLP in St. Louis.
“Whether or not a prosecutor would choose to prosecute these individuals in this case is an open question. Frankly I have doubts whether a prosecutor would want to go down that path,” he said.
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HOW TO HELP
* You can help immediately by texting "HAITI" to "90999" and a donation of $10 will be charged to your cell phone bill and given automatically to the Red Cross to help with relief efforts.
* Wyclef Jean, a rapper and hip-hop artist from Haiti, urged people to text "Yele" to 501501 to donate $5 toward earthquake relief. Yéle Haiti is a grassroots movement inspiring change in Haiti through programs in education, sports, the arts and environment, according to its Web site.
* The State Department Operations Center has set up the following number for Americans seeking information about family members in Haiti: 1-888-407-4747. The Red Cross has also set up a Web site to help family members find and contact relatives.
The FBI warned Internet users to be wary of e-mail messages seeking donations in the aftermath of the quake. People who want to send money or assistance should contribute to known organizations and should be careful not to respond to unsolicited e-mails, officials said.
Other Web sites accepting donations include: