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Page last updated at 02:35 GMT, Tuesday, 2 February 2010

US missionaries 'knew they were doing wrong' in Haiti

New Life Children's Refuge members (top L-R) Drew Culberth, Steve McMullen, Silas Thompson, Paul Thompson, Jim Allen (bottom L-R) identity unknown and Carla Thompson at a police station in Port-au-Prince on 31 January
The missionaries say they did not know they were doing anything wrong

Haiti's prime minister has criticised 10 US missionaries who were arrested as they tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the earthquake-hit country.

Jean-Max Bellerive described them as "kidnappers" and said they had known "what they were doing was wrong".

He said some of the children had parents who were alive, and that the government was trying to locate them.

A spokeswoman for the missionaries said they had wanted to take the children to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic.

"They really didn't have any paperwork... I did not understand that that would really be required," Laura Silsby told CNN.

"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."

Hearing

A Haitian judge is expected to decide on Tuesday whether the five men and five women from Idaho have a case to answer. A hearing had been scheduled for Monday, but was postponed because of a lack of interpreters for the Americans.

One girl was crying, and saying, 'I am not an orphan. I still have my parents.'
George Willeit
SOS Children's Village

In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr Bellerive said that if they had been acting in good faith, "perhaps the courts will try to be more lenient with them".

But he noted: "It is clear now that they were trying to cross the border without papers. It is clear now that some of the children have live parents. And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong."

Mr Bellerive said Haiti was open to having the Americans tried in the US since most government and court buildings had been destroyed.

US embassy officials would not say whether Washington would accept judicial proceedings, insisting the case remained one for the Haitian authorities. They noted that nobody had yet been charged.

Pastor

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.

Children at an orphanage in Haiti (31 January 2010)
Thousands of children in Haiti have been separated from their families

The children were later taken to an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, where at least 10 told aid workers that they had surviving parents and knew their contact details. Officials are now trying to reunite the families.

"One girl was crying, and saying, 'I am not an orphan. I still have my parents.' And she thought she was going on a summer camp or a boarding school or something like that," said George Willeit, a spokesman for SOS Children's Village.

Mr Willeit said the children had arrived "very hungry, very thirsty", including a baby who had to be hospitalised because of dehydration.

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," Ms Silsby said.

She said her group had met a Haitian pastor by chance when they arrived last week, and that he had helped them gather the children.

A woman who said she was the mother of five of the children said she had been deceived by the pastor.

"The pastor said it was a good thing, and that the children would be safe and they would give the children to the missionaries," Magonie Berto told the Reuters news agency.

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.



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