Ten US missionaries are facing lengthy jail sentences after being charged with the kidnap of 33 Haitian children that they allegedly attempted to take out of the country illegally. Laura Silsby, the leader of the group, and the other nine defendants arrived at the hearing in Port-au-Prince on Thursday with their cases packed, optimistic they would be let off, but were each charged with "kidnapping minors and criminal association".
The missionaries, five men and five women, were visibly upset by the decision, according to those at the courthouse, and bowed their heads in prayer as a Jeep drove them back to their holding cells. Kidnapping carries a sentence of between five and 15 years in prison, while the second charge is punishable by between three and nine years. The Americans, largely made up of members of the congregation of two Idaho baptist churches, were arrested after they attempted to take a busload of 33 children over the border into the Dominican Republic on January 29 without, it is alleged, proper documentation. They claim they were rescuing abandoned orphans from the poverty-stricken country after the devastating earthquake last month in which at least 212,000 died. But it has emerged that most of the children have living parents.
Edwin Coq, the Haitian lawyer defending all 10 of the accused, said that nine were entirely innocent, but was less defensive of Ms Silsby's actions. "I'm going to do everything I can to get the nine out," Mr Coq told the Associated Press. "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." Carlos Castillo, the Dominican consul in Haiti, told the agency that Ms Silsby had visited him on the day she had tried to bus the children out, and he had specifically warned her that if she did not obtain adoption papers signed by appropriate Haitian authorities, her actions would be considered child trafficking. "We were very specific," he said.
Some had raised questions over whether the Americans would face a fair trial in Haiti, as its legal system is not yet back on its feet, but Paul Denis, the country's justice minister, has insisted that the case be heard there. "It is Haitian law that has been violated," he told Agence France-Presse. "It is up to the Haitian authorities to hear and judge the case. I don't see any reason why they should be tried in the United States."
Ms Silsby, who is also currently the subject of legal action in the US over alleged non-payment issues at her personal shopping business, began plans to create an orphanage for Haitian and Dominican children in the Dominican Republic last summer, with the intent of working with US adoption agencies to find Christian homes for the children. When the earthquake hit she decided to act immediately and recruited other church members to assist her. The group spent a week gathering children, between the ages of two and 12, all of whom she claimed were either rescued from collapsed orphanages or handed over by distant relatives.
But according to Patricia Vargas, an official at SOS Children's Village, which is now looking after the children, of those who could talk, none said their parents were dead. Families have claimed they gave away their children to the missionaries because the Americans had promised them a better life and education and had been told they would be allowed to visit. It is not the first time Ms Silsby has found herself in the courts. Her Idaho-based business Personal Shopper, has been the subject of nine successful civil court claims for non-payment of wages, and was forced to pay US$31,000 in salaries and a further $4,000 in fines. In a further case scheduled to be heard on February 22, another former employee is suing her company for $22,000 he says it owes him.
After defaulting on her home in July, Ms Silsby registered the non-profit organisation New Life Children's Refuge at that address in November, a month before the house was repossessed, according to the New York Times. @Email:email@example.com