PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A group of U.S. Baptist missionaries arrested trying to leave Haiti with a busload of children faced questioning by a local judge on Wednesday, while a Haitian-born pastor who accompanied the group said some parents had sent their children willingly in hopes of a better life.
The investigating magistrate was to meet with the five men in the group, a day after he questioned the five women for several hours at judicial police headquarters, where they are jailed, according to Haiti's communications minister. No lawyers were present.
Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue said the judge will present his findings to a Haitian prosecutor who will decide whether to file criminal charges against the 10 Americans.
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."
But a Haitian-born pastor who accompanied the Baptist group insisted Wednesday the Americans had done nothing wrong, and that any with living parents had sent with the knowledge they would have a better life and would still be able to see their relatives.
"When we think orphanage, it's someone without a mother and father. In Haiti, it's not the case," the Rev. Jean Sainvil told The Associated Press in Atlanta, noting that many children in orphanages have been put there by parents who cannot care for their children.
"These parents are homeless and hopeless," he said. "Everybody agreed that they knew where the children were going. The parents were told, and we confirmed they would be allowed to see the children and even take them back if need be."
He said the children whose parents were still alive were to be kept in the Dominican Republic, with plans for their relatives to visit. He said some of those who did not have parents might have been put up for adoption.
The Americans enlisted local clergymen who asked 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.
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.