Ten Americans detained in Haiti were charged on Thursday with child kidnapping and criminal association for trying to take children illegally out of the earthquake-hit country.
After announcing the charges, Haitian Deputy Prosecutor Jean Ferge Joseph told the Americans their case was being sent to an investigative judge.
"That judge can free you but he can also continue to hold you for further proceedings," the deputy prosecutor told the five men and five women at a hearing.
If convicted, they face up to nine years in prison on child kidnapping charges and further jail time for conspiracy.
They were arrested last week on Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic when they tried to cross with a busload of 33 children they said were "orphaned" by the devastating Jan. 12 quake. But later it emerged that many of the children are not orphans.
Haitian authorities also said the group lacked the authorization needed to take the children out of Haiti.
All 10 Americans, who range in age from 18 to 55, admitted under questioning from the prosecutor they had apparently committed a crime by seeking to take the children across the border without proper documents. But they said they were "unaware" of that until after their arrest.
Group leader Laura Silsby told the hearing: "We simply wanted to help the children. We petition the court not only for our freedom but also for our ability to continue to help."
Afterward, the missionaries did not speak to reporters as they were taken back to police headquarters to await the judge's decision.
The U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, met with the Americans at police headquarters after the hearing and told reporters that "to the best of my knowledge, they're being treated according to Haitian law.
"We'd like to assure they get treated according to the law, the Haitian law, and that they get treated fairly," he said.
"We continue to provide appropriate consular assistance and to monitor developments in the legal case," State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said in Washington.
Speaking before the Haitian charges were announced, another State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said the United States was not seeking to interfere in the case.
After the Americans' arrest, evidence emerged that most of the children intercepted with them were not orphans. Haitian police said some parents admitted to handing over their children to the missionaries in the belief they would get an education and a better life.
Silsby told the hearing her group was taking the children to a "45-room hotel" it was converting to an orphanage in Cabarete, Dominican Republic.
Haiti's government has tightened adoption procedures since the quake, saying it feared unscrupulous traffickers could try to take advantage of the disaster by spiriting away vulnerable children. Officials said they already had reports of trafficking of minors, and even of human organs.
Related news reports:Last Mod: 05 Şubat 2010, 12:43