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Page last updated at 05:58 GMT, Friday, 5 February 2010

US missionaries in Haiti charged with child abduction

US missionaries arrive at Haiti court

Haiti has charged 10 US missionaries with child abduction and criminal conspiracy for allegedly trying to smuggle 33 children out of the country.

Haitian officials said their cases would now be sent to an investigating judge who would decide how to proceed.

If convicted they face lengthy jail terms, says the BBC's Paul Adams, in Haiti's quake-hit capital city.

When stopped on the border last Friday, they said they were taking the children to a Dominican Republic orphanage.

But it has emerged some of the youngsters had parents who were alive.

'Kidnappers'

After the hearing the 10 missionaries were taken back to the jail where they have been kept since Friday.

ANALYSIS
Nick Davis, BBC News, Port-au-Prince
This case has become the biggest thing since the quake. It's pushed the tragedy - that has seen up to 200,000 killed and countless more made homeless - off the front page.

The issues surrounding this story are important. Natural disasters in the past have seen cases of child trafficking. A warning by Unicef saw the increased security by the Haitian authorities that led to the arrest.

With the US spearheading the relief mission and with the American aid public donating so much to the survivors of the disaster, the expectation of many was that they'd be released; they'd turn up at court and a short time later they'd be whisked out of the country.

Amid chaotic scenes, the group was bundled into a van outside the court.

"I feel good," the group's leader Laura Silsby told reporters. "I trust in God."

The five men and five women, most of them from Idaho, were due to have a hearing earlier in the week, but that was postponed because of a lack of interpreters.

Haiti's Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive has labelled the Americans "kidnappers".

Justice Minister Paul Denis said they should be tried in Haiti despite the damage done to the country's judicial infrastructure and casualties among judges and court staff.

There have been suggestions the 10 could be tried in the US.

"It is Haitian law that has been violated, it is up to the Haitian authorities to hear and judge the case," he told AFP news agency.

"I don't see any reason why they should be tried in the United States."

The US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, met the group at police headquarters after the hearing.

"We'd like to assure they get treated according to the law, the Haitian law, and that they get treated fairly," he said.

A state department spokesman in Washington said the US was watching the case closely and would continue to offer assistance, through its consulate, to the group.

'Single village'

The children, who are from aged from two to 12, are now in the care of the Austrian-run SOS Children's Village in Port-au-Prince.

Missionaries Corinna Lankford, left, and her daughter Nicole Lankford, 18, both of Middleton, Idaho, being taken back to jail after being charged in Haiti - 4 February 2010
The missionaries have said they were not trying to kidnap the children

Twenty-one of the children are from a single village outside the capital and were handed over willingly by their parents, says the BBC's Paul Adams, in Port-au-Prince.

Residents in the village of Callebas told an Associated Press news agency reporter they had handed their children over through a local orphanage worker who said he was acting on the Americans' behalf.

The worker is said to have promised the families that the missionaries would educate their children in neighbouring Dominican Republic.

A number of parents in the badly-damaged village said they would find it difficult to provide for their children if they came back.

Ms Silsby has 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.

"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," she said from her jail cell on Wednesday.



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