PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) -- Ten U.S. missionaries detained in Haiti have been charged 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.
As the decision was announced, the Americans, most of whom belong to an Idaho-based Baptist church, appeared stunned, and some shook their heads in disbelief.
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 January 12 quake. Haitian authorities 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, acknowledged 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.
"We didn't know what we were doing was illegal. 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.
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."
Most of the Americans, who have been in jail since January 29, were covered with severe mosquito bites. The prosecutor asked them at one point if they wanted to see a doctor.
Afterward, the missionaries did not speak to a mob of reporters as they were taken back to police headquarters to await the judge's decision.
The case could be diplomatically sensitive at a time when the United States is spearheading a huge relief effort to help hundreds of thousands of Haitian quake victims, and as U.S. aid groups pour millions of dollars of donations into Haiti.
U.S. Says Case Is Up To Haitians
The U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, met with the missionaries 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.
Crowley sought to play down comments on February 3 by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Washington was in talks with the Haitian government "about the appropriate disposition of their [missionaries'] cases."
"I wouldn't read too much into that," he said. "We have been in touch with Haitian judicial officials just to help understand how they were going to act in this particular case.
"I would put this in the context of, you know, asking for clarifications about...what [their] procedure would be, what the...timeline, capacity [is] to be able to pursue this case," he added.
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.
"We were going to house them there," she said of the beach resort. "They could stay there, go to school and live well and the parents could come and visit them."
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.