Americans face long prison terms over Haiti child abductions

2010-02-05 11:03

TEN US missionaries charged with child abduction and conspiracy are

facing a long wait behind bars for trial over seeking to smuggle 33 children out

of quake-hit Haiti.

The Americans, from an Idaho-based charity, were formally charged

yesterday with “kidnapping minors and criminal association,” said their lawyer

Edwin Coq, after his earlier hopes were dashed that most of the group might be

freed.

Visibly upset, the missionaries had arrived for the hearing in good

spirits with their luggage already packed to leave, bowed their heads in prayer

afterward in the back of a jeep as they were returned to police detention.

The group of five men and five women, who have been held for a

week, could now face a long pre-trial detention as Haitian law gives the

prosecution three months to draw up its case.

Justice Minister Paul Denis told AFP he saw “no reason” why the

group from the Baptist charity New Life Children’s Refuge would be sent to the

US for trial.

“It is Haitian law that has been violated,” he said.

“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 US.”

If convicted, the missionaries could face nine years in prison on

child kidnapping charges and further jail time for conspiracy.

As they were escorted into the jeep, some tried to cover their

faces with a black jacket. But Haitian journalists whipped it off, and one even

threw a stone before being stopped by police.

The case has triggered outrage in the impoverished nation where

child-trafficking was already rife well before the 7.0-magnitude quake struck

early last month.

And in a grim reminder of the devastation left in the wake of the

massive earthquake, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said the death toll has

now reached 212 000 and over 300 000 people have been injured, while the number

of homeless may be far higher than the one million estimated by

authorities.

Bellerive told CNN that the toll, already the highest on record

from any natural disaster in the Americas, was likely to rise “a little bit”

higher as recovery crews pull bodies from locations where demolition had been

delayed while rescue teams searched for survivors.

The missionaries have denied any ill-intent, saying they only

wanted to help those children left orphaned or abandoned by the quake that

ravaged the Caribbean nation.

Among the destitute are thousands of children who are seen as

particularly vulnerable to traffickers and child predators.

The missionaries were detained last week as they attempted to cross

into the Dominican Republic with a busload of children aged from two months to

12 years.

But it has emerged that many of the children still had parents or

relatives, some of whom may have personally handed the youngsters over to the

Americans.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it was “unfortunate”

that “this group of Americans took matters into their own hands.”

The State Department meanwhile said it continues to provide

consular assistance and monitor developments in the case.

Coq, the group’s lawyer, said a Haitian pastor had authorized the

Baptists to take the children out. “They were missionaries who came to help,” he

said.

US Ambassador Kenneth Merten told journalists that US officials

were in talks with the Haitian government.

“What we like to do is to make sure they are being treated

according to the law,” he said.

According to government prosecutor Mazan Fortil, it remains unclear

whether the 10 would be tried in Haiti.

“We have to apply Haitian law. The case will be sent before a

judicial panel, to open the investigation,” Fortil said.

Bellerive has charged that the case is becoming “a distraction” for

Haitians with people “talking more now about 10 people than about one million

people suffering on the streets.”

He called the earthquake “a disaster on a planetary scale”.

Some 250 000 homes have been destroyed and 30?000 businesses lost,

he said.

With tensions running high in the ruined capital Port-au-Prince

over the slow aid effort, angry Haitians have staged protests in the streets

demanding food, water and jobs.

The United States, which is spearheading the relief efforts, has

deployed 20 000 troops, helicopters and transport planes, but coordination

problems and the sheer scale of the disaster has hampered aid distribution.


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