PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A lawyer for 10 Baptist missionaries who tried to take three dozen children out of the country said Friday he would ask a judge to let his clients go free until their trial on kidnapping charges.
The missionaries were taken to a downtown courthouse Friday to appear before an investigative judge in a closed hearing, said Jean-Louis Martens, a senior Haitian judicial official.
They were escorted into the building one by one by Haitian police who covered their heads with a blue sheet so that they could not be photographed. None of the Americans responded to reporters' shouted questions.
Edwin Coq, the defense attorney representing the missionaries, told reporters he would ask the judge to grant "provisional release," a type of bail without money posted, for the missionaries until their trial.
"I hope that they will be released today," Coq said.
The investigating judge charged the Americans on Thursday with kidnapping for trying to take 33 children across the border into the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without documentation.
Coq has said that the group's leader, Laura Silsby, knew she couldn't remove the youngsters without proper paperwork, but he characterized the other nine missionaries as unknowingly being caught up in actions they didn't understand.
"They were naive. They had no idea what was going on and they did not know that they needed official papers to cross the border. But Silsby did," he said.
Silsby waved to reporters Thursday but declined to answer questions as the missionaries were taken back to the holding cells where they have been held since Saturday. She had expressed optimism before the hearing. "We expect God's will be done. And we will be released," she said.
The missionaries' detention has raised concerns among other countries including France, whose foreign ministry on Friday urged the Haitian government to quickly set up a bilateral commission to look into adoption procedures. French families have taken in 277 Haitian children since the quake.
Family members of the detained Americans released a statement late Thursday saying they were concerned about their relatives jailed in a foreign country.
"Obviously, we do not know details about what happened and didn't happen on this mission," the statement said. "However, we are absolutely convinced that those who were recruited to join this mission traveled to Haiti to help, not hurt, these children."
The Baptist group, most of whose members are from two Idaho churches, had said they were rescuing abandoned children and orphans from a nation that UNICEF says had 380,000 youngsters in that plight even before the quake.
But at least two-thirds of the children involved in the case, ranging in age from 2 to 12, have parents, although the parents of some told The Associated Press they gave them up willingly because the missionaries promised the children a better life.
Each was charged with one count of kidnapping, which carries a sentence of five to 15 years in prison, and one of criminal association, punishable by three to nine years. Coq said the case would be assigned a judge and a verdict could take three months.
The magistrate, Mazard Fortil, left without making a statement. Social Affairs Minister Jeanne Bernard Pierre, who earlier harshly criticized the missionaries, declined to comment. The government's communications minister, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, said only that the next court date had not been set.
"Obviously this is a matter for the Haitian judicial system," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters Friday.
"We're going to continue to provide support, as we do in every instance like this, to American citizens who have been charged and hope that this matter can be resolved in an expeditious way. But it is something that a sovereign nation is pursuing based on the evidence that it presented."
Members of Idaho's congressional delegation said in a statement Thursday that they are working to ensure the missionaries have access to legal help and medical attention.
Silsby had begun planning last summer to create an orphanage for Haitian children in the neighboring Dominican Republic. When the earthquake struck she recruited other church members, and the 10 spent a week in Haiti gathering children for their project.
Most of the children came from the ravaged village of Callebas, where people told the AP they handed over their children because they were unable to feed or clothe them after the quake. They said the missionaries promised to educate the children and let relatives visit.
Their stories contradicted Silsby's account that the children came from collapsed orphanages or were handed over by distant relatives.
She also said the Americans believed they had obtained in the Dominican Republic all the documents needed to take the children out of Haiti.
The Dominican consul in Haiti, Carlos Castillo, told the AP on Thursday that the day the Americans departed for the border, Silsby visited him and said she had a document from Dominican migration officials authorizing her to take the children from Haiti.
Castillo said he warned Silsby that if she lacked adoption papers signed by the appropriate Haitian officials her mission would be considered child trafficking. "We were very specific," he said.