PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Ten U.S. Baptist missionaries were charged with kidnapping Thursday for trying to take 33 children out of Haiti to a hastily arranged refuge just as officials were trying to protect children from predators in the chaos of a great earthquake.
The Haitian lawyer who represents the 10 Americans portrayed nine of his clients as innocents caught up in a scheme they did not understand. But attorney Edwin Coq did not defend the actions of the group leader, Laura Silsby, though he continued to represent her.
"I'm going to do everything I can to get the nine out. They were naive. They had no idea what was going on, and they did not know that they needed official papers to cross the border," Coq said. "But Silsby did."
The Americans, most members of two Idaho churches, said they were rescuing abandoned children and orphans from a nation that UNICEF says had 380,000 even before the catastrophic Jan. 12 quake.
But at least two-thirds of the children, ages 2 to 12, have parents who gave them away because they said the Americans promised the children a better life.
The investigating judge, who interviewed the missionaries Tuesday and Wednesday, found sufficient evidence to charge them for trying to take the children across the border into the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without documentation, Coq said.
Each was charged with one count of kidnapping, which carries a sentence of five to 15 years in prison, and one of criminal association, punishable by three to nine years. Coq said the case would be assigned a judge and a verdict could take three months.
The magistrate, Mazard Fortil, left without making a statement. Social Affairs Minister Jeanne Bernard Pierre, who has harshly criticized the missionaries, refused to comment. The government's communications minister, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, said only that the next court date had not been set.
U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten showed up after 5 p.m. outside judicial police headquarters, where the Americans are being held and where President Rene Preval and top ministers have temporary offices because theirs were destroyed in the quake.
"The U.S. justice system cannot interfere in what's going on with these Americans right now," he told reporters. "The Haitian justice system will do what it has to do."
U.S. consular officials have been making regular visits to the missionaries.