PORT-au-PRINCE, HAITI- Ten Americans arrested in Haiti for trying to take 33 children across the border without proper documentation were expected to learn Monday whether they would face criminal charges of child trafficking and kidnapping.
Members of the group, who are Baptists from the United States, said they had been falsely accused of child abduction and insisted they had only been trying to rescue orphans in the wake of the earthquake that devastated the Haitian capital on Jan. 12.
But some Haitian officials were quick to paint the Americans as kidnappers, illustrating how the case was becoming a lightning rod for fears that child traffickers or unscrupulous adoption agencies could take advantage of the chaos in Haiti.
The Haitian prime minister told Reuters that “we did not arrest Americans, we arrested kidnappers,” and he said the missionaries could face serious charges. But the Haitian justice minister and a lawyer for the Americans said there was also a possibility that the group could be returned to the United States.
Jorge Puello, a lawyer for the church members in the Dominican Republic, said in an interview that his clients had not yet been charged with any crime and “are being falsely accused” of trying to traffic the children out of Haiti. Mr. Puello said that the Americans were being held in unsanitary conditions and had not eaten in two days, and that he was allowed to see his clients when he tried to visit them a day earlier.
With Haiti’s government in shambles after the earthquake, Mr. Puello said he did not know whether its judiciary could proceed with a high-profile prosecution fraught with diplomatic and cultural tensions.
“If they get charged I don’t know how it’s going to play out,” he said.
Haitian officials detained the church members out of concern the children might be susceptible to trafficking, saying some of the children might have parents. The officials also said the team lacked proper documents to take the children, who range in age from 2 months to 12 years.
The team was being held at judicial police headquarters in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, until a hearing Monday before a judge. The justice minister, Paul Denis, said in an interview that the hearing might be held in the former American Embassy, which the United States had donated to Haitian authorities.
A church affiliated with the group, Central Valley Baptist in Meridian, Idaho, said the team had traveled to Haiti to rescue children from orphanages destroyed in the quake. The children, the statement said, were headed for an orphanage across the border in the Dominican Republic.
The 33 children on the bus have been temporarily placed in an orphanage on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince that is run by SOS Children’s Villages, an organization based in Austria. On its Web site Sunday, SOS said at least one of the children, an 8-year-old girl, told workers, “I am not an orphan” and that she believed that her mother had arranged a short vacation for her.
In an earlier posting, SOS said that the children were destined for adoption and that a group associated with the 10 Baptists, New Life Children’s Refuge, advertised adoptions for Americans. But Laura Silsby, 40, who was among those detained, said that New Life Children’s Refuge had paid no money for the children and learned about them from a Haitian pastor, Jean Sanbil of the Sharing Jesus Ministries.
Ms. Silsby also said that her group, which also included members from Texas and Kansas, planned to take the children to a 45-room hotel in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, which it had converted into a temporary orphanage until it builds a permanent one.
The church group also includes worshipers at Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho.
A Web site belonging to the East Side Baptist Church contains an informational attachment for New Life, describing it as “a nonprofit Christian ministry dedicated to rescuing, loving and caring for orphaned, abandoned and impoverished Haitian and Dominican children, demonstrating God’s love and helping each child find healing, hope, joy and new life in Christ.”
Since the Jan. 12 earthquake, Haiti’s government has halted all adoptions unless they were in motion before the disaster. Officials fear that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to being kidnapped and sold. Prime Minister Max Bellerive’s personal authorization is now required for the departure of any child.
“The instinct to swoop in and rescue children may be a natural impulse, but it cannot be the solution for the tens of thousands of children left vulnerable by the Haiti earthquake,” Deb Barry, a protection expert at Save the Children, told The Associated Press on Sunday. Her group wants a moratorium on new adoptions. “The possibility of a child being scooped up and mistakenly labeled an orphan in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster is incredibly high.”
Still, some parents in Haiti have openly said that they would consider parting with their children if it meant a better life elsewhere. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and while the country is in need of help, many citizens have mixed feelings toward Christian groups and their missions in Haiti.
“Some parents I know have already given their children to foreigners,” Adonis Helman, 44, told The A.P. “I’ve been thinking how I will choose which one I may give — probably my youngest.”