VIDEO: Haiti Charges 10 white christian Americans With Child Abduction

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Ten Americans who tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the country last week without the government’s consent have been charged with child abduction and criminal conspiracy, as Haitian officials sought to reassert judicial control after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

The Americans, most of them members of a Baptist congregation from Idaho, had said they intended to rescue Haitian children left parentless in the quake and take them to what they described as an orphanage across the border in the Dominican Republic. But they acknowledged failing to seek approval to remove the children from Haiti, and several of the children have at least one living parent.

The Americans will face a potentially extended legal proceeding in Haiti and could, if convicted, face prison terms of up to 15 years.

In a sign of the cloudy nature of the case, the prosecutor, Mazar Fortil, decided not to pursue what could have been the most serious charge against the group, that of trafficking. The charges will now be considered by an investigative judge, who has up to three months to decide whether to pursue the matter further.

The leader of the group, Laura Silsby, a businesswoman who describes herself as a missionary as well, has also come under scrutiny at home in Idaho, where employees complain of unpaid wages and the state has placed liens on her company bank account.

The lawyer for the group, Edwin Coq, said after a hearing on Thursday that 9 of his 10 clients were “completely innocent,” but that, apparently in a reference to Ms. Silsby, “If the judiciary were to keep one, it could be the leader of the group.”

The Haitian capital lost courthouses, judges, lawyers and its main prison in the earthquake, straining the judiciary along with everything else. Prosecutors said this was the first criminal case to receive a hearing in Port-au-Prince since the natural disaster.

The hearing took place in a hilltop courthouse that had minor cracks in the walls and scores of squatters living outside. A crush of journalists sought access to the defendants on their way into the courthouse, where police officers in riot gear prevented access.

The Americans were transported in two Haitian police vehicles — one labeled “Child Protection Brigade” — from the police station where they have been held since the weekend to Port-au-Prince’s main criminal courthouse. Mr. Coq said beforehand that their immediate release was possible, and the police who transported the detainees took their luggage to the hearing as well in case they were to be freed.

Ms. Silsby, who had helped organize the group’s mission, sounded a hopeful note as she waited to be taken into court, saying, “We’re just trusting God for a positive outcome.”

But during the hearing, Jean Ferge Joseph, a deputy prosecutor, told the Americans that their case was not being dropped and that it would be sent to a judge for further review.

“That judge can free you, but he can also continue to hold you for further proceedings,” the deputy prosecutor said, according to Reuters.

When they received the news, the Americans did not appear distraught, Mr. Coq, their lawyer, said. “They prayed,” he said. “They looked down and prayed.”

Reuters, which had a reporter in the session, said that all 10 of the detainees acknowledged to the prosecutor that they had apparently violated the law when they tried to take the children from Haiti, although they said they were unaware of that until after they were detained.

“We did not have any intention to violate the law, but now we understand it’s a crime,” said Paul Robert Thompson, a pastor who led the group in prayer during a break in the session.

Ms. Silsby asked the prosecutor not only to release the group, whose members range in age from 18 to 55, but also to allow them to continue their work in Haiti.

“We simply wanted to help the children,” she said. “We petition the court not only for our freedom, but also for our ability to continue to help.”

As they were led out of the courthouse one by one for their return to jail, some of the Americans smiled as reporters surrounded them. They left without comment.

The Americans were arrested last Friday as they tried to take the 33 children by bus to the Dominican Republic, where they said they were in the process of leasing or building an orphanage. It is unclear if the group had arranged for someplace to house the children in the Dominican Republic.

A Web site for the group, the New Life Children’s Refuge, said that the Haitian children there would stay in a “loving Christian homelike environment” and be eligible for adoption through agencies in the United States.

The children are being taken care of now at SS Children’s Villages, an Austrian-run orphanage in Port-au-Prince.

The Americans and members of their churches have said that they are innocent of any wrongdoing, and described the case as a misunderstanding. In an interview this week, Ms. Silsby said the group had come to Haiti to rescue children orphaned by the earthquake, and that “our hearts were in the right place.”

But some of the children had living parents, and some of those parents said that the Baptists had promised simply to educate the youngsters in the Dominican Republic and to allow them to return to Haiti to visit.

Ms. Silsby had made her intentions known to child protection officials, human rights experts and Dominican authorities in Haiti, all of whom warned her that she could be charged with trafficking if she tried to take children out of the country without proper documentation.

Some Haitian leaders have called the Americans kidnappers, but their case has created divisions. Outside the courthouse on Thursday, one onlooker backed the Americans. “The process they followed was wrong, but they were not stealing kids,” said Béatrice St.-Julien. “They came here to help us.”

Until Thursday, Haitian judicial officials had left open the possibility that the group could be returned to the United States for trial, sparing Haiti’s crippled justice system a high-profile criminal prosecution fraught with diplomatic and political land mines.

American officials have talked with Haitian judicial authorities about the case, but it is unclear exactly how much lobbying Washington is doing behind the scenes to affect the outcome. The State Department has said that whether to pursue charges for any possible violations of Haitian law remains a Haitian decision.

One expert said that by pursuing the case Haitian authorities seemed to be trying to make a point.

“Haiti’s decision to prosecute the Baptist missionaries may be motivated, in part, by the need to show its own people and the world that it is a viable entity that is tackling the grave problem of international child abductions in Haiti,” Christopher J. Schmidt, a lawyer with Bryan Cave L.L.P. in St. Louis who has been involved in multiple cases of international kidnapping, said in a statement.

A MUST READ: A Thorn in the Side of the U.S. Military in Haiti

Watch the U.S. media and its coverage of the crisis in Haiti, and you get the impression that Washington is a benevolent power doing its utmost to help with emergency relief in the Caribbean island nation. But tune into al-Jazeera English or South American news network Telesur and you come away with a very different view. I was particularly struck by one hard hitting al-Jazeera report posted on You Tube which serves as a fitting antidote to the usual mainstream fare. The report is highly critical of the U.S., which according to the reporter has focused most of its energy on fostering stability and putting boots on the ground as opposed to rebuilding Haitian society.

It’s not the first time that al-Jazeera has taken on the U.S. military. Indeed, the network fell afoul of American authorities as long as seven years ago during the invasion of Iraq. A news organization comprised of many editors, journalists, presenters and technical staff who had formerly worked with the BBC in London, al-Jazeera broadcast shockingly graphic pictures of dead and captured American soldiers.

When the network aired footage of the captured U.S. soldiers, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused al-Jazeera of violating the Geneva conventions. The network, however, was unrepentant. “Look who’s talking about international law and regulations,” said spokesperson Jihad Ballout. “We didn’t make the pictures – the pictures are there. It’s a facet of the war. Our duty is to show the war from all angles,” he added.

Yosri Fouda, al-Jazeera’s bureau chief in London, chimed in. “I can see why American and British politicians and military leaders don’t like us showing these pictures,” he remarked. “They show a side of the war that they don’t want projected because it may affect public opinion in their country negatively. In these things, the western media is highly sanitized. You are not seeing what war, this war, is actually like.”

During the short-lived war, al-Jazeera had correspondents posted around Iraq. While the U.S. mainstream media encouraged its own narrative of advancing and triumphant coalition forces, al-Jazeera broadcast horrific images of Iraqi victims of coalition bombing campaigns. One showed the head of a young child that had been split apart, reportedly in a coalition assault on Basra.

Perhaps, the U.S. military was literally gunning for al-Jazeera as a result of the network’s controversial news coverage. During an American air raid and artillery barrage on Baghdad, U.S. forces killed at least three journalists including an al-Jazeera correspondent, Tariq Ayoub. The building was hit by two air-to-surface missiles. At the time, the reporter was standing on the roof of al-Jazeera’s station doing a live broadcast.

U.S. military officials said they regretted the deaths of the journalists and claimed they did not know every place that journalists were operating. Al-Jazeera, however, declared that it had previously informed the Pentagon of the location of its Baghdad office. In fact, in a letter to the Pentagon, the Middle Eastern network gave the exact coordinates of its building.

It wasn’t the first time that al-Jazeera had suffered at the hands of the U.S. military. During the invasion of Afghanistan, the network’s Kabul office was destroyed by U.S. “smart” bombs two hours before the Northern Alliance took over the city. According to one report, President Bush may have even suggested that al-Jazeera offices in Qatar be bombed during a meeting with then Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Though al-Jazeera provided critical coverage of the U.S. military, the network has never become a mouthpiece for Arab regimes in the Middle East. Even as many Arabic TV stations (including Iraq’s before the invasion) referred to the U.S. military as “forces of aggression,” al-Jazeera opted for “invading forces.” What’s more, al-Jazeera conducted long interviews with Tony Blair, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and even Ariel Sharon.

In addition, the network has gotten on the wrong side of several Arab governments and reporters have been banned or harassed in Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Al-Jazeera was criticized by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain reportedly accused the network of being pro-Zionist. As a result of the network’s impartiality and independence, many Arabs have become subscribers as they believe al-Jazeera sees the world as they do.
In the wake of the tragedy in Haiti, al-Jazeera is now bringing its critical coverage to bear in the Caribbean. While the U.S. military operating in the island nation may not like it, commanders will have to put up with the same kind of close media scrutiny they were placed under in the Middle East. For the U.S. military however, the headache now runs deeper. In addition to al-Jazeera, commanders must now contend with Venezuelan media and Telesur.

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Like al-Jazeera, which receives state funding from Qatar’s government, Telesur or Television of the South also receives government support, specifically from leftist Latin American and Caribbean governments including Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. And, similarly to al-Jazeera, Telesur is a media enterprise designed to compete with traditional U.S. outlets such as CNN.

When Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez helped to found Telesur in 2005 as an affiliate of state TV Venezolana de Televisión, U.S. conservatives grew concerned. Connie Mack, a Republican Congressman from Florida, remarked that the new network was “patterned after al-Jazeera,” and threatened to spread anti-U.S. ideas across Latin America.

When Telesur announced a content-sharing agreement with al-Jazeera in 2006, Mack went ballistic and declared that the decision was designed to create a “global television network for terrorists.” Adding to conservatives’ ire, Telesur signed an agreement with al-Jazeera whereby Latin personnel would receive training at the hands of the Middle Eastern network.
If al-Jazeera’s trial by fire was Iraq, the crucial test for Telesur was Honduras in 2009. In the wake of the right wing coup d’etat which deposed democratically elected president José Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran army cut off Telesur’s local broadcasts. However, the network’s signal was still available on the internet and a local radio station occasionally picked up Telesur audio.

Adriana Sivori, Telesur’s correspondent in Tegucigalpa, was in her hotel room speaking on the telephone to her network when 10 soldiers arrived with rifles drawn. The men unplugged Telesur’s editing equipment in an effort to halt the network’s coverage of protests in support of ousted president Zelaya.

When a soldier lightly slapped Sivori’s hand so she would hang up, the journalist grew alarmed. “They’re taking us prisoner at gunpoint,” she remarked. Sivori, along with producer María José Díaz and cameraman Larry Sánchez, were taken to an immigration office in a military caravan. There, the authorities beat them and demanded to see their Honduran visas. Shortly later, the journalists were released and the authorities warned Telesur journalists to cease transmitting images in support of Zelaya or face further detention. Defiantly however, Telesur continued to throw a lot of resources at the Honduras story. Indeed, at times during the first week after the coup Telesur was the only channel with a live feed. In a media scoop, Telesur even broadcast a live telephone interview with Zelaya from his Venezuelan plane when the ousted leader attempted to return to Tegucigalpa.

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To be sure, Telesur’s visibility increased as a result of its ground breaking Honduras coverage. However, what has given Telesur most credibility is the station’s willingness to take on other controversial topics, some of which have rattled left-leaning South American governments. One of those issues is Haiti.

Like al-Jazeera, which has pursued independent journalism in the Middle East, Telesur went into Haiti and took a no-holds-barred approach. According to station manager Aram Aharonian, who I interviewed for my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), Telesur’s Haiti coverage proved controversial with the Chilean, Argentine, and Uruguayan governments.

One of the first stories that Telesur broadcast from the island nation concerned MINUSTAH, the United Nations’ Stabilization Mission in Haiti. In the report, Haitians said that Latin American peace keeping soldiers deployed to Haiti were repressing the people. The reporting ruffled feathers and “some officials in various countries” called Aharonian to protest the coverage.

Now, in the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, Telesur has joined al-Jazeera in providing critical coverage of events. Moving on from the MINUSTAH mission, Telesur has focused in laser-like on United States’ misplaced priorities in the Caribbean island nation. While most Americans watch the mainstream media and bask in a wave of self-congratulation, Telesur has painted a darker picture of the U.S. response.

In one report for example, Telesur focused on U.S. policy towards Haitian migrants. According to the story, U.S. officials have drawn up plans to house the migrants at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo instead of transferring them to the United States. Meanwhile, U.S. naval vessels including aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson are prepared to intercept Haitian boats and repatriate the desperately needy if necessary.

In another story, Telesur reported on European Union unhappiness about the U.S. relief effort in Haiti. According to the report, the EU seeks more relief coordination and less of a foreign military presence in Haiti. Reed Lindsay, Telesur’s correspondent in Haiti, remarks that it is the U.S. military which decides who goes in and out of the Port-au-Prince airport and what kinds of humanitarian aid gets through. According to Telesur reports, EU concerns are echoed by many Latin American governments who fear that the U.S. is using the crisis in Haiti to launch a military occupation.

Could the U.S. military be running out of patience with foreign media reporting, which has proven much less deferential to Washington when it comes to Haiti coverage? One recent report by Cuba’s Prensa Latina is worth noting. According to the story, U.S. marines recently barred Venezolana de Televisión journalists from entering Haitian hospitals. At Haiti’s central hospital, Haitians seeking to help their loved ones inside were reportedly mistreated. Those who tried to bring water and food to their relatives were unable to enter the hospital, as the marines stopped them from entering the facilities.

Al-Jazeera has always proven to be a thorn in the side of the U.S. military. Now, Washington must also contend with rising star Telesur. In the coming days, as the relief effort proceeds in Haiti, relations between the Pentagon and these new media outlets could prove testy.

Ref: counterpunch

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.