Fate of US missionaries to be decided by Haiti judge
Published 02/02/2010 | 05:00
HAITIAN authorities yesterday questioned a group of 10 US missionaries accused of illegally trying to take children out of the quake-shattered Caribbean country.
A prosecutor met with the Americans at police headquarters in Port-au-Prince, where they have been held since they were arrested late on Friday trying to cross into the Dominican Republic with a busload of 33 children they said were orphaned by the devastating earthquake on January 12.
The Baptist missionaries deny Haitian charges they were engaged in child trafficking and insist they were only trying to help vulnerable orphans left destitute by the quake.
The case could be diplomatically sensitive at a time when the United States is spearheading a huge relief effort to help hundreds of thousands of Haitian quake victims and US aid groups pour millions of dollars of donations into Haiti.
Haitian authorities have expressed fears the chaos and loss caused by the earthquake that killed up to 200,000 people could allow child traffickers to prey on vulnerable children.
Government officials said the detained Americans had no documents proving the children were orphans or giving them permission to take them out of the country.
"We have information about people trying to steal kids to take them out of the country, which is the reason why the government has decided to reinforce security," Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Lassegue said of the arrests.
She added that authorities were reviewing the evidence against the group of five men and five women. Ms Lassegue said it was possible the Americans could be sent home for trial because of the damage inflicted on the Haitian judicial system by the quake.
"We tell all Americans all over the world 24 hours a day that you are subject to the laws of the country where you find yourself," the US consul general in Haiti, Donald Moore, told reporters. Mr Moore said the missionaries were "being processed according to the Haitian penal system." He had no comment on whether Haiti had been in contact with the US government about moving the case to the United States.
Meanwhile, evidence emerged that many of the 33 children intercepted with the missionaries were not orphans.
Haiti's police said some of them were handed over voluntarily by their parents. The Americans, who admit they had no documents, approvals or passports for the Haitian infants, insist they just wanted to help them by taking them over the border to an orphanage they were establishing in the Dominican Republic.