Page last updated at 00:57 GMT, Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Haiti judge quizzes US missionaries over child case

US Baptist missionary Laura Silsby: "God is going to bring this to a positive closure"

A group of 10 US missionaries who were arrested as they tried to take 33 children out of earthquake-stricken Haiti are being questioned by a judge.

The investigative magistrate quizzed the five women for several hours and will interview the men on Wednesday.

Communications Minister Marie Laurence Jocelyn-Lassegue said prosecutors would later decide whether to press charges.

The missionaries deny they were engaged in child trafficking, and insist they were trying to help vulnerable orphans.

On Monday, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive described them as "kidnappers" who had known "what they were doing was wrong".

He said some of the children had parents who were alive, and that the Haitian authorities were trying to reunite them.

Preliminary stages

On Tuesday, the five women missionaries were questioned behind closed doors by an investigative magistrate at the judicial police headquarters in Port-au-Prince. There were no lawyers present.

"I heard five of them. Then I will hear the other five tomorrow," Judge Ezaie Pierre-Louis said. "After the hearing tomorrow, I will make a report to the prosecutor, then he will decide what he does next."

Up until now we have not encountered any who say they are an orphan
Patricia Vargas
SOS Children's Village

Before the hearing, prosecutor Mazarre Fortil said the authorities were still in the preliminary stages of the investigation.

"We are looking deeper into what happened to determine the next steps," he told the Reuters news agency.

The missionaries have been detained since Friday, when they tried to enter the neighbouring Dominican Republic with the children, whose ages ranged from 2 months to 12 years, without the right documents.

The children were later taken to an orphanage, where those who were old enough and willing to talk said they had surviving parents.

"Up until now we have not encountered any who say they are an orphan," said Patricia Vargas of SOS Children's Village.

The missionaries' "Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission" was described on their website as an effort to save abandoned and traumatised children. They intended to take 100 by bus to a hotel in the Dominican beach resort of Cabarete.

"Our intent was to help only those children that needed us most, that had lost either both their mother and father, or had lost one of their parents and the other had abandoned them," said Laura Silsby, a spokeswoman for the group, from their cell.

"We believe we have been charged very falsely with trafficking. We all gave up everything we had... to come here to help these children and by no means are any part of that horrendous practice."

One of the 33 children who US missionaries attempted to take out of Haiti (31 January 2010)
Thousands of children in Haiti have been separated from their families

Ms Silsby said her group had met a Haitian pastor by chance when they arrived last week, and that he had helped them gather the children. She also admitted that they did not have the proper paperwork.

The director of Haiti's social welfare agency, Jeanne Bernard Pierre, told the Associated Press that the pastor had knocked on doors asking people if they wanted to give away their children.

"One child said to me: 'When they came knocking on our door asking for children, my mom decided to give me away because we are six children and by giving me away she would have only five kids to care for,'" he said.

The US government has said the case remains one for the Haitian authorities. Embassy officials have had regular access.

Experts have expressed concerns that child traffickers could take advantage of the earthquake on 12 January, which killed up to 200,000 people and left more than a million people homeless.

According to UN guidelines, two years should pass after a disaster before adoption can even be considered, giving time to exhaust all efforts to locate family members first.

Print Sponsor

Reuters UK US, Haiti holding talks on detained missionaries - 1 hr ago
AFP via Yahoo! U.S., Haiti holding talks on detained missionaries (Reuters) - 2 hrs ago
MSNBC Many children in Haiti case are not orphans - 14 hrs ago Haiti mother tells of giving twin sons to US missionaries - 14 hrs ago

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