Ten US Baptist missionaries charged with child kidnapping returned to jail after failing to persuade a Haitian judge to free them pending the outcome of their case.
The weary-looking Americans were led one by one into the back of a police van after spending half the day at a court in Haiti’s rubble-strewn capital Port-au-Prince.
A judge scheduled three more days of hearings next week, starting Monday, defence lawyer Edwin Coq said.
Haitian officials at the court refused to answer questions from journalists about the case. The missionaries did not respond to questions and Mr Coq said they had been ordered by the judge not to discuss it.
The lawyer said that at least nine of the Americans – all but the group’s leader Laura Silsby – clearly did not know they lacked the proper papers to remove 33 children from Haiti following the devastating earthquake and should be released immediately.
“They came to Haiti to help. They came in solidarity,” he said. “It is scandalous that they are being detained.”
Before yesterday’s closed hearing, Mr Coq told reporters he would ask the judge to grant the detainees “provisional release”, a type of bail without money posted.
He said they should be allowed to leave Haiti until their trial.
An investigating judge charged the Americans on Thursday with kidnapping for trying to take the 33 children across the border into the Dominican Republic on January 29 without documentation.
Mr Coq said Silsby knew she could not take the youngsters without proper paperwork, but described the other nine missionaries as innocents caught up in actions they did not understand.
The Baptist group, most of whose members are from two Idaho churches, insisted they were rescuing abandoned children and orphans after the devastating quake.
But at least 22 of the children, aged two to 12, have parents. Some of the parents have said they gave them up willingly because the missionaries promised the children a better life.
Each of the missionaries is 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. Mr Coq said the case was assigned a judge and a verdict could take three months.
“Obviously this is a matter for the Haitian judicial system,” US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said yesterday.
Her husband, former US president Bill Clinton, now a special United Nations envoy for Haiti relief, met President Rene Preval in Port-au-Prince yesterday, but said his visit had nothing to do with the detained Americans.
He said, however, that Washington was monitoring their welfare.
Three national leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention sent a letter yesterday to US president Barack Obama urging him to “do everything within the authority of your office to secure a safe return home” for the detainees.
The leaders added that they could not “speak authoritatively about the motives and actions” of those detained, saying they went to Haiti on their own and were not part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s international relief efforts.
Silsby, who wanted to create an orphanage for Haitian children in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, and the other nine went to Haiti after the earthquake to gather children for their project.
Most of the children were from the village of Callebas, where people said they handed them over because they could not feed or clothe them.
Their stories contradicted Silsby’s account that the children came from collapsed orphanages or were handed over by distant relatives.