The ten American missionaries who tried to take Haitian children out of the country with no documentation were charged yesterday with abduction and criminal conspiracy, and could face 15 years in a Haitian jail.
According to Marc Lacey of the Times, the prosecutor in the case did not push for a charge of trafficking, the most serious that could have been leveled against the group. And an investigative judge will now take up to three months to decide whether to release the Americans or continue with the case. Undoubtedly, this will be a period of intense debate over whether the missionaries deserve incarceration — and the case has the potential to become an Amanda Knox-style clash between Americans and another country's judicial system.
Haiti may be trying to make an example of the missionaries, both to discourage further child trafficking and to show that, even after a devastating natural disaster, it still has working courts. Says international kidnapping expert Christopher J. Schmidt, "Haiti's decision to prosecute the Baptist missionaries may be motivated, in part, by the need to show its own people and the world that it is a viable entity that is tackling the grave problem of international child abductions in Haiti." But not all Haitians support the decision. Béatrice St.-Julien, an onlooker at the courthouse where the Americans were charged, said, "The process they followed was wrong, but they were not stealing kids. They came here to help us."
The group's lawyer, Edwin Coq, is taking an interesting tack, claiming that nine of the client are innocent but one — organizer Laura Silsby (pictured) — may be guilty. According to the Washington Post, Coq said, "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. But Silsby did." And indeed, Silsby appears to have both lied and disregarded clear warnings that she would be arrested if she proceeded with her plan. Dominican consul Carlos Castillo says he told Silsby she would be charged with trafficking if she tried to take children out of Haiti without proper papers from the Haitian government; she did it anyway. She also said the children in her care were orphans when a full two-thirds had parents, and told some parents that they could visit their kids and that she was taking them away to be "educated." But according to the Times, her group's web site said that children from her new orphanage would be eligible for adoption by US families.
Fifteen years seemed like a stiff sentence for "naïve" do-gooders who failed to follow procedure. But while Coq may be right that nine of the missionaries fit this description, Silsby seems to be something worse. At the very least, she willfully ignored Haitian law to pursue her own plans. And at worst, she took Haitian children from their parents to place them with American families. Silsby seems every bit the ugly American here — a shameful example of an interloper who ignored the rights of suffering families in order to do what she decided was best for them. And that's assuming that she didn't hope to profit somehow from her scheme — allegations of her financial malfeasance back in the US have cast even this into doubt. If they truly had no idea they were breaking the law, then perhaps her nine fellow missionaries don't deserve prison time. But Silsby was clearly aware of the potential consequences of her actions — and there's no reason she shouldn't face them now.
Haiti Charges Americans With Child Abduction [NYT]
Lawyer: Missionary Leader To Blame For Kidnap Case [Washington Post]