Last Updated: 10:12 AM, February 5, 2010
Posted: 4:15 AM, February 5, 2010Comments: 47
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Ten American missionaries were charged Thursday in quake-hit Haiti with child abduction and criminal conspiracy, but should not be sent for trial in the United States, officials said.
"It is Haitian law that has been violated," Justice Minister Paul Denis told AFP. "It is up to the Haitian authorities to hear and judge the case. I don't see any reason why they should be tried in the United States."
The group of five men and five women from an Idaho-based charity were detained on Friday after trying to drive a bus-load of 33 children over the border into the Dominican Republic.
They were formally charged with "kidnapping minors and criminal association" on Thursday according to their lawyer Edwin Coq.
The group could now face nine years in prison on child kidnapping charges and further jail time for conspiracy.
The group has denied any ill intentions, saying they were merely trying to help children orphaned and abandoned by the January 12 quake.
But amid continued chaos in the Haitian capital, the head of Port-au-Prince lawyers' association, Gervais Charles, said any trial would be impossible in the country any time soon.
"It is absolutely impossible to carry out the trial for the Americans in Haiti right now. Judicial proceedings have not officially restarted in Port-au-Prince," he said.
Earlier government prosecutor Mazan Fortil said it was not yet clear if the 10 could be tried in the Haiti.
"We cannot say right now. We have to apply Haitian law. The case will be sent before a judicial panel, to open the investigation," he said.
"Everyone who is accused should have the right to a hearing within a reasonable period. I don't see how the Haitian judicial system could guarantee that, especially in such a complex case."
But with tens of thousands of children still homeless on the streets of Port-au-Prince, the government is under pressure to clamp down on potential abuse.
The UN Children's fund has warned that displaced children are in "significant" danger of being sold into slave-like conditions, trafficked or illegally adopted.
UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde Frafjord Johnson also said the 7.0-magnitude quake had presented the agency with its biggest challenge.
"The risks of child trafficking, children being sold to slavery-like conditions or illegally adopted... are significant," she said.
"As for the number of unaccompanied children, as the situation is unfolding this is the biggest... child protection crisis we've seen," she added.
About 40 percent of children were already living in great poverty and some 300,000 were living in orphanages before last month's quake crippled life in the capital Port-au-Prince and surrounding area, UNICEF said.
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