Haiti prime minister: US Baptists knew they were wrong to try to take 33 children

By Frank Bajak, AP
Monday, February 1, 2010

Haiti PM: US Baptists knew removing kids was wrong

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 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,” 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.

U.S. Embassy officials would not say whether Washington would accept hosting judicial proceedings for the Americans, who are mostly from Idaho. 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 some prosecution is needed to help deter child trafficking, which many fear will flourish in the chaos caused by the devastating Jan. 12 quake. The government and aid groups are still struggling to get food, water, shelter and basic health care to hundreds of thousands of survivors, and many parents are desperate to get help for their children.

U.S. diplomats have had “unlimited” access to the 10 detainees, and will monitor any court proceedings, said Crowley. They have not yet been charged.

Members of the church group insisted they were only trying to save abandoned and traumatized children — but 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.

One of the Americans, Charisa Coulter of Boise, Idaho, was treated Monday at a field hospital for either dehydration or the flu. Looking pale as she lay on a green Army cot, the 24-year-old Coulter, was being guarded by two Haitian police officers.

“They’re treating me pretty good,” she said. “I’m not concerned. I’m pretty confident that it will all work out.”

Investigators have been trying to determine how the Americans got the children, and whether any of the traffickers that have plagued the impoverished country were involved.

Puello said they came from a collapsed orphanage. Their detained spokeswoman, Laura Silsby, said they were “just trying to do the right thing,” but she conceded she had not obtained the required passports, birth certificates and adoption certificates for them — a near impossible challenge in the post-quake mayhem.

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, ranging in age from 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 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, a 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 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. Bellerive’s personal authorization is now required for the departure of any child.

The arrested Americans’ churches are part of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, which has extensive humanitarian programs worldwide, but they decided to mount their own “rescue mission” following the earthquake.

Also Monday:

— U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the U.S. military would fly critically ill quake survivors to patients in several states to avoid overloading Florida. The flights had stalled for five days due to concerns over space and costs in U.S. hospitals. Earlier, in Haiti, U.S. Army Col. Gregory Kane said the flights had resumed Sunday night. But the military later said there were no flights until Monday.

— In Washington, the American Red Cross said a waiting list of 1,000 flights for Haiti’s airport is limiting delivery of relief supplies.

— In Haiti’s first organized political demonstration since the quake, hundreds of people demanded that President Rene Preval resign. Participants called for the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest who was ousted in a 2004 rebellion. The rally was organized by Aristide supporters.

— A U.S. Navy carrier left Haiti after delivering about 500 tons of humanitarian aid. The USS Carl Vinson arrived off the Haitian coast three days after the quake. Its personnel evacuated 435 patients and its 19 helicopters flew more than 1,000 hours to support the relief operation. Ten of those choppers will remain in Haiti.

— Haiti announced “Operation Demolition,” an effort to demolish all collapsed buildings — public and private, commercial and residential. The declaration by Aby Brun, an architect and member of the government’s reconstruction team, followed comments by President Rene Preval that Haiti can take advantage of the catastrophe to reverse the trend of migration to Port-au-Prince. “We will destroy in an orderly and secure manner,” Brun said.

— Many schools in Haiti’s outlying provinces, which were not as affected by the quake, reopened Monday, and more provincial schools will reopen Feb. 8, the government said. It could take months for classes to resume in the hard-hit capital, where the disaster may have ended formal education altogether for many youngsters.

“They’ve cut off my leg,” said Billie Flon, 9. He said he can’t go back to school because his house was destroyed and he needs to beg for money.

Associated Press writers Michelle Faul and Paisley Dodds in Port-au-Prince, and Matthew Lee in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.

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