They met on the Dominican border one week ago. Gwinnett pastor Jean Sainvil, loaded with supplies for Haitian earthquake victims, needed a ride.
The 10 Americans, most of them members of an Idaho Baptist church, were headed into Haiti hoping to bring children back to their Dominican orphanage. Sainvil, a native Haitian, became their guide, directing them to Delmas, where has contacts. Before long the bus was filled with 33 children ages 2-12 -- some orphans, some handed over by their parents, Sainvil, pastor of the Gospel Assembly Church, told the AJC.
Today those 10 Americans were formally accused of kidnapping and criminal association by Haitian authorities. Sainvil, who moved to the U.S. when he was 19, said he was stunned to learn of the charges.
"[Haitian authorities] want to prove they're still in power, still in charge," said Sainvil, who often travels to Haiti as a Christian missionary. "If they had asked two simple questions everything would be solved."
The Americans were arrested on their return trip across the border. Sainvil stayed behind in Haiti after trying unsuccessfully to secure official permission to relocate the children. Both Sainvil and group leader Laura Silsby acknowledged the youths were taken without official permission.
"These kids needed help immediately," Sainvil told the AJC. "It was the right moment and the right time. I thought they'd make it because many Haitians have good hearts. But I was worried."
Edwin Coq, the Americans' attorney, said there won't be an open trial. A judge will consider the evidence and could render a verdict in about three months.
Coq said that nine of the 10 knew nothing about the alleged scheme, or that paperwork for the children was not in order.
"I'm going to do everything I can to get the nine out," Coq said. That would still leave Silsby facing charges.
Sainvil said none of the missionaries deserve prosecution. Earlier Thursday, he told the AJC he was confident they would be freed: "They will be and they should be."
Now, he feels helpless. "I'm going to figure out what I can do to get them released," Sainvil said.
He has no regrets about assisting the missionaries.
"[Parents] begged us to take their children," Sainvil said. "We had people saying we already have children, take our niece and nephew because we can't care for them."
One mother tried to hand over each of her five children, including a toddler.
"She said, ‘I don't have a baby bottle. I have nothing. Nothing,'" Sainvil recounted.
Not all of the children could fit on the bus, but Sainvil said the Idaho group planned to return for more. "They had room for 150 children at their orphanage," he said.
"In Haiti, if a parent can't care for a child, they give them up for adoption," he said. "It's not that they don't want them, it's that they want a better life for them."
The children taken from the group are back in Port-au-Prince, where they're being cared for at the Austrian-run SOS Children's Village. Their alleged kidnappers were returned to jail in Haiti's capital, where they could remain another 24 years if convicted of all charges.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the attempt to bring undocumented children out of Haiti was "unfortunate whatever the motivation" and the Americans should have followed proper procedures. She said U.S. officials were in discussions with Haitian authorities about how to resolve the case.
--The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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