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10 found taking Haitian children could face US courts

Baptists knew their act ‘was wrong,’ prime minister says

Prime Minister Max Bellerive arrived at the location in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, where 10 Americans who allegedly tried to cross the border with Haitian children were being held. Prime Minister Max Bellerive arrived at the location in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, where 10 Americans who allegedly tried to cross the border with Haitian children were being held. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Ben Fox
Associated Press / February 2, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Haiti’s prime minister said yesterday that 10 Americans who tried to take a busload of undocumented Haitian children out of the country knew that “what they were doing was wrong’’ and could be prosecuted in the United States.

Prime Minister Max Bellerive also said his country is open to having the Americans face US justice, since most government buildings - including Haiti’s courts - were crippled by the monster earthquake.

“It is clear now that they were trying to cross the border without papers. It is clear now that some of the children have live parents,’’ Bellerive said. “And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong.’’

If they were acting in good faith - as the Americans say - “perhaps the courts will try to be more lenient with them,’’ he said.

US Embassy officials would not say whether Washington would accept hosting judicial proceedings for the Americans, who are mostly from Idaho. For now, the case remains firmly in Haitian hands, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington.

“Once we know all the facts, we will determine what the appropriate course is, but the judgment is really up to the Haitian government,’’ he said.

Haitian officials insist some prosecution is needed to help deter child trafficking, which many fear will flourish in the chaos caused by the devastating Jan. 12 quake. The government and aid groups are still struggling to get food, water, shelter and basic health care to hundreds of thousands of survivors, and many parents are desperate to get help for their children.

US diplomats have had unlimited access to the 10 detainees, and will monitor any court proceedings, he said. They have not been charged.

Members of the church group insisted they were only trying to save abandoned children - but few appear to have had any significant experience with Haiti, international charity work, or international adoption regulations.

Since their arrest Friday near the border, church group members have been held inside two small concrete rooms in the same judicial police headquarters building where ministers have makeshift offices and give disaster response briefings.

“There is no air conditioning, no electricity. It is very disturbing,’’ lawyer Jorge Puello told the AP by phone from the Dominican Republic, where the Baptists hoped to shelter the children in a rented beach hotel.

One of the Americans, Charisa Coulter of Boise, Idaho, was treated yesterday at a field hospital for dehydration or the flu. Looking pale as she lay on an Army cot, Coulter, 24, was being guarded by two Haitian police officers.

In a separate development yesterday, many schools in Haiti’s outlying provinces reopened for the first time since the earthquake, though it may take a month or more to open classrooms in the quake-crushed capital.

Many schools were fuller than before because some 300,000 people, including many schoolchildren, fled Port-au-Prince after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

But it could be a month or longer before students in the quake zone resume their studies, said Marie-Laurence Jocelin Lassegue, minister of culture and communications.

Most schools are damaged or destroyed. Many teachers are dead.

Also yesterday, the White House said it was resuming the military airlift of critically injured earthquake victims, having received assurances that additional medical capacity exists in US hospitals. The flights had stopped four days earlier, worrying doctors in Haiti who said hundreds would die without specialized care.

US Army Colonel Gregory Kane said a medical evacuation flight left Haiti for the United States Sunday night, almost five days after the flights were suspended by squabbling over space and health costs at American public hospitals.

The US military had another plane ready to go yesterday with a capacity for 15 patients, said the chief medical officer at the University of Miami field hospital in Haiti, Dr. Mike Sheehan.

“We have a list of seven people who would probably die within 48 hours if they don’t get out of here,’’ he said.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said the White House received assurances that additional medical capacity exists in the United States and among its international partners for the patients.

“We determined that we can resume these critical flights,’’ Vietor said. “Patients are being identified for transfer, doctors are making sure that it is safe for them to fly, and we are preparing specific in-flight pediatric care aboard the aircraft where needed.’’

Exactly what led to the suspension on Wednesday of medical evacuation flights was unclear, though military officials have said some states refused to take patients.

Officials in Florida, one of the main destinations for military flights leaving Haiti, say no patients were ever turned away.