Haiti PM: Baptists knew not to take kids
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Haiti's prime minister said Monday that 10 Americans who tried to take a busload of undocumented Haitian children out of the country knew that "what they were doing was wrong," and could be prosecuted in the United States.
Prime Minister Max Bellerive also told The Associated Press that his country is open to having the Americans face U.S. justice, since most government buildings, including Haiti's courts, were crippled by the monster earthquake.
"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," Mr. Bellerive said. "And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong."
If they were acting in good faith, as the Americans claim, "perhaps the courts will try to be more lenient with them," he said.
For now, the case remains firmly in Haitian hands, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington. "Once we know all the facts, we will determine what the appropriate course is, but the judgment is really up to the Haitian government," he said.
Haitian officials insist that some prosecution is needed to help deter child trafficking, which many fear will flourish in the chaos caused by the devastating Jan. 12 quake.
Church group members insisted that they were only trying to save abandoned and traumatized children, but they appeared to lack any significant experience with Haiti, international charity work or international adoption regulations.
After their arrest Friday near the border, the church group members were placed in two small concrete rooms in the same judicial police headquarters building where ministers have makeshift offices and give disaster response briefings.
"There is no air conditioning, no electricity. It is very disturbing," Attorney Jorge Puello told the AP by phone from the Dominican Republic, where the Baptists hoped to shelter the children in a rented beach hotel.
Investigators have been trying to learn how the Americans got the children, and if any traffickers who have plagued the country were involved.
Mr. Puello said they came from a collapsed orphanage. Detained spokeswoman Laura Silsby said the group was "just trying to do the right thing," but she conceded that she had not obtained the required passports, birth certificates and adoption certificates for them -- a near-impossible challenge in the post-quake mayhem.
Mr. Bellerive said that without the documents, the children were unlikely to reach the United States, as some of their families might have hoped. The 33 kids, from age 2 months to 12 years, arrived with their names written in tape on their shirts at a children's home, where some told aid workers that they have surviving parents. Haitian officials said they were trying to reunite them.
"One [9-year-old] 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, spokesman for SOS Children's Village, which runs the orphanage where they were taken.
The prime minister said some of those parents may have knowingly given their kids to the Americans in hopes that they would reach the United States -- a not-uncommon wish for poor families in a country that already had an estimated 380,000 orphans before the quake.
Haiti's overwhelmed government has halted all adoptions unless they were in motion before the earthquake, amid fears that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to being seized and sold. Sex trafficking has been rampant in Haiti. Mr. Bellerive's personal authorization is now required for the departure of any child.
First Published February 2, 2010 12:00 am