By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 5, 2010; A06
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Ten American Baptists who said they wanted to save orphans after Haiti's earthquake were charged with child kidnapping Thursday in a case that has raised fears about the trafficking of minors.
The Americans, most of whom belong to a Baptist church in Idaho, were arrested last week after they tried to enter the Dominican Republic in a bus loaded with 33 children, ages 2 to 12. The group's attorney here in Port-au-Prince, Edwin Coq, told reporters that nine of his 10 clients had little idea what they were doing.
Coq said the Americans came "to give support to people in difficulty" and did not know that the children were being transported out of Haiti without proper documentation.
He said that the only American who had knowledge of the plan was Laura Silsby, the group's leader. She told the Associated Press in a recent interview that the group had not sought travel documents for the children, explaining that her organization wanted to offer help as quickly as possible after the Jan. 12 quake, which left tens of thousands of children without parents.
"I think nine of those people have nothing to do with that question," Coq said when asked outside the court building what the Americans knew. "If there is someone that the justice system must retain for some questioning, it is the leader of the group, Madame Laura. But the rest of the group are people who came only with compassion, to offer their solidarity to the Haitian people."
Coq told reporters that most of the Americans were on their first visit to Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest country, and knew little about it. He said that they waited on a bus while a deal was worked out that transferred the children into their care, though he did not say if money changed hands.
"They were just sitting on the bus while the child transaction occurred," he said.
Across the capital, in tent cities where children are going hungry, desperate mothers say they would be willing to give away their children if they could have a better life. But the case of the Baptists has prompted the government to warn parents to watch their children closely. "I would not give away my child unless they gave me a document to say I could see them and contact them," said Agenis Chery, who has five children.
Since the Americans were arrested, it has become clear that several of the children in the group being transported out of Haiti were not orphans, but had been given away by their parents. The children are now at an SOS Children's Village here. SOS Children's Villages International is a global nonprofit organization based in Austria.
The case is diplomatically sensitive because it comes as the beleaguered administration of President René Préval tries to demonstrate it is playing a role in the relief effort spearheaded by the United States. Haitian officials, though, have said they are discussing with U.S. officials whether the Americans could be prosecuted in the United States.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said U.S. authorities are monitoring the proceedings and open to discussing "other legal avenues" for the accused. "But right now," he said, "the matter rests within the Haitian judicial system."
Coq, the group's attorney, told reporters that a judge would render a verdict within three months. It was unclear if the Americans would remain jailed until then.
"I'll fight so they can be free before the investigation ends, because I believe they were innocent," he said.