22 Nov 2010

U.S. Baptists charged with kidnapping Haitian children had lied to parents and officials about their intentions

CBC News - February 4, 2010

Haiti charges Baptists with kidnapping childen

Ten U.S. Baptist missionaries were charged with kidnapping Thursday for trying to take 33 children out of Haiti to a hastily arranged refuge just as officials were trying to protect children from predators in the chaos following the earthquake.

The Haitian lawyer who represents the 10 Americans portrayed nine of his clients as innocents caught up in a scheme they did not understand. But attorney Edwin Coq did not defend the actions of the group leader, Laura Silsby, though he continued to represent her.

"I'm going to do everything I can to get the nine out. 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," Coq said. "But Silsby did."

The Americans, most members of two Idaho churches, said they were rescuing abandoned children and orphans after the Jan. 12 quake.

But at least two-thirds of the children, who range in age from 2 to 12, have parents who gave them away because they said the Americans promised the children a better life.

The investigating judge, who interviewed the missionaries Tuesday and Wednesday, found sufficient evidence to charge them for trying to take the children across the border into the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without documentation, Coq said.

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 has harshly criticized the missionaries, refused to comment. The government's communications minister, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, said only that the next court date had not been set.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said the U.S. government was still waiting for a report from its embassy.

"But the 10 are accused of violating Haitian law and the case is proceeding under Haitian law through a transparent judicial process," Duguid said.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. was open to discuss "other legal avenues" for the defendants, an apparent reference to the Haitian prime minister's earlier suggestion that Haiti could consider sending the Americans back to the United States for prosecution.

But it's unlikely the Americans could be tried back home, according to Christopher J. Schmidt, an expert on international child kidnapping law in St. Louis, Mo. U.S. statutes may not even apply, he said, since the children never crossed an international border.
Accused sleep on floor in cells

Silsby waved and smiled faintly to reporters but declined to answer questions as the Baptists were whisked away from the closed court hearing back to the holding cells where they have been since Saturday.

Coq complained about conditions at the judicial police lockup. He said the Americans are sleeping on the floor without blankets and aren't being provided with adequate food. He said he had delivered pizza and sandwiches.

Silsby had been planning to create an orphanage for Haitian children in the Dominican Republic and when the earthquake struck, she recruited other church members to help kick her plans into high gear. The 10 Americans rushed to Haiti and spent a week gathering children for their project.

Most of the children came from the quake-ravaged village of Callebas, where residents told The Associated Press that they handed over their children to the Americans because they were unable to feed or clothe them after the earthquake. 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 said the Americans believed they had all the paperwork needed — documents she said she obtained in the Dominican Republic — to take the children out of Haiti.

The children are now being cared for at the Austrian-run SOS Children's Village in Port-au-Prince. An official there, Patricia Vargas, said none of the children who are old enough to talk have said they were orphans.

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CNN - February 5, 2010

U.S. missionaries charged with kidnapping in Haiti

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- Ten Americans detained last week while trying to take 33 Haitian children out of the country were charged Thursday with kidnapping children and criminal association, a government official said.

Information Minister Marie Laurence Lassegue's announcement came shortly after the five men and five women left a hearing at the prosecutor's office.

Under Haitian law, anyone accused of kidnapping a child is not eligible for bail, the attorney general's office said.

Conviction on the kidnapping charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison; the criminal association charge carries a penalty of three to nine years, according to a former justice minister.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told CNN's "Larry King Live" on Thursday night that the judge in the case has three months to decide whether to prosecute.

"We hope that he will decide long before those three months," he said. "He can release them, he can ask to prosecute them."

If a decision is made to prosecute, the case would be heard before a jury, he said.

Told that the families of the detained Americans had pleaded for him to intervene, Bellerive said he could not.

"Those people are not in the hands of the government; they are in the hands of justice," he said. "We have to respect the law. It is clear that the people violated the law. What we have to understand is if they did it in good faith."

Bellerive said the Haitian government was open to the possibility of the case being transferred to a U.S. court but said the request would have to come from the United States. "Until now, I was not asked," he said.

He expressed gratitude for the work of the vast majority of Americans who have helped in the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake that he said killed at least 212,000 people.

The Americans were turned back Friday as they tried to take the children across the border into the Dominican Republic without proper documentation. They said they were going to house them in a converted hotel in that country and later move them to an orphanage they were building there.

"We can confirm that the 10 American citizens remain in custody in Haiti," said State Department deputy spokesman Gordon Duguid. "We continue to provide appropriate consular assistance and to monitor developments in the legal case."

The Americans have said they were just trying to help the children leave the earthquake-stricken country.

Some of the detained Americans have said they thought they were helping orphans, but their interpreters said Wednesday that they were present when group members spoke with the children's parents. Some parents in a village outside Port-au-Prince said they had willingly given their children over to the Americans, who promised them a better life and who said they could see their children whenever they wanted to.

Government approval is needed for any Haitian child to leave the country, and the group acknowledged that the children had no passports.

Some members of the group belong to the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho. One of the church's ministers asked for privacy and would not discuss the matter.

"I know you have many questions but we don't have answers right now," Drew Ham, assistant pastor, said in a note to reporters.

P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, has said that U.S. officials have been given unlimited consular access to the Americans and that U.S. and Haitian authorities are "working to try to ascertain what happened [and] the motive behind these people.

"Clearly, there are questions about procedure as to whether they had the appropriate paperwork to move the children," he said Wednesday.

CNN's Karl Penhaul in Port-au-Prince, Dan Simon in Meridian, Ohio, and Jill Dougherty in Washington contributed to this report.

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Time Magazine - February 5, 2010

Haiti's Children: Save Them, Don't Just Take Them

by Tim Padgett

In Haiti, the western hemisphere's poorest country, 1 in 10 children will die before reaching age 5 because of plagues like malnutrition. Who, then, can blame destitute Haitian mothers when they so often ask visitors from richer nations to take their sickly, underfed toddlers back to the U.S. or Canada or Europe to live? And who can fault those affluent folks for wanting to follow their inner Brad and Angelina, swaddle those kids on the spot and head for the airport — especially after the earthquake that ravaged Haiti last month and left those children more vulnerable than ever?

There are just two problems with that impulse — one that's fairly obvious (or should be to anyone from a country with rule of law) and another to which foreigners are too often oblivious. The first is that it's patently illegal, as 10 Baptist missionaries from Idaho found out Thursday, Feb. 4, when Haitian authorities formally charged them with criminally abducting 33 poor Haitian children they had tried to ferry out of the country in a bus, with no proper documents, for adoption in the U.S. Many if not most of the youths, it turns out, weren't even orphans; they were simply kids whose desperate parents said they could no longer support. The Americans deny the accusation and insist their efforts were humanitarian. But Haitians like Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive have called them "kidnappers."

The second and perhaps more serious downside to taking a Haitian youngster off a mother's beleaguered hands, or even taking a genuine orphan, without lawful process is that it harms the country's children more than it helps them. That's because — and here's the part that members of the Haitian √©lite like Bellerive would rather forget — it only encourages the rampant trafficking of children for which Haitians themselves are to blame. Some 300,000 of Haiti's youths, for example, are child slaves known in Creole as restaveks. Most fall into these straits because their penniless parents give them up to more affluent Haitian families, who are notorious for keeping them illiterate, heaping grinding labor on them and subjecting them to physical and sexual abuse. The sort of verbally agreed-upon transfer of minors that took place between Haitian families and the U.S. missionaries "is too often how child trafficking occurs in Haiti," says Joan Conn, executive director of the Jean Cadet Restavek Foundation, which provides restaveks refuge in Haiti and abroad.

That's partly why the missionaries' arrests touched such a raw nerve in Haiti — and why the Haitian government felt compelled to make an example of them. Many had expected authorities to release the Americans, who were arrested on Jan. 29, with a slap on the wrist. That's what prosecutors in the North African nation of Chad eventually did in 2007 after arresting six French NGO workers accused of attempting to airlift 103 children from that war-torn country for adoption in France. But in recent years, Haiti's political class has come under increasing international criticism for turning a blind eye to the child-trafficking scourge. Indicting the misguided missionaries was a way to show that it is serious about applying the law for a change.

Still, no sooner had the Idaho Baptists been charged than there was talk about a deal that might send them to the U.S. for prosecution (in ways a practical suggestion, since the earthquake left Haiti's judiciary, like most institutions there, barely functioning). A State Department spokesman confirmed that the Obama Administration would consider "other legal avenues" for the U.S. citizens if the Haitians requested. Their Haitian attorney, Edwin Coq, said after the charges were announced that he was confident nine of the defendants would be released, leaving only the leader of the group, Laura Silsby, 40, to face trial; under Haitian law, she could receive up to 15 years in prison on each of the 33 kidnapping counts.

Silsby allegedly has a host of legal hassles to deal with back in Idaho — some of which may have foreshadowed the attitude toward legal niceties that prosecutors say she's displayed in Haiti. The Idaho Statesman reported this week that the Boise businesswoman and founder of the New Life Children's Refuge, affiliated with the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, has been a defendant in at least eight civil lawsuits, involving allegations from fraud to nonpayment for goods and services, including employee wages and lawyer fees. (Silsby defaulted in some cases and is contesting others.) The newspaper reported that Silsby was also cited frequently over the past decade for failure to register her car and provide insurance for it. The Statesman also found that the Idaho house where Silsby headquartered the New Life charity (which she runs with her children's nanny, who was also arrested in Haiti) was foreclosed on in December.

Since her arrest, Silsby has adamantly denied from her jail cell that she and her New Life assistants were involved in trafficking of any kind, telling the New York Times that "God wanted us to come here to help children." Since the Jan. 12 earthquake, interest in adopting Haitian children, especially in the U.S., has spiked. But while acknowledging that foreigners like Silsby may be well-meaning, Haitian officials point to the disregard for process as a big reason the government recently put the brakes on adoptions amid the postdisaster chaos.

Given how lax Haiti has historically been about legal protections for children, that was a welcome move. So was bringing charges against the missionaries, many believe. It might get more foreigners to recognize that perhaps the best way to help Haiti's children isn't by plucking them out of their country but by helping to rebuild Haiti so they'll have a safer place to grow up in; and it might prod more Haitians to recognize how wrong their own indifference to child trafficking is. Many of the children found in the New Life bus have since been reunited with their families — back in a battered country that may now feel a stronger commitment to shielding them.
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