PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti's prime minister said Monday 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 told the Associated Press that his country is open to having the Americans face U.S. justice, since most government buildings — including Haiti's courts — were crippled by the 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 claim —"perhaps the courts will try to be more lenient with them," he said.
The Americans include Drew Culberth, 34, a firefighter and a part-time youth pastor from Topeka.
U.S. Embassy officials would not say whether Washington would accept hosting judicial proceedings for the Americans, who are mostly from Idaho.
"Once we know all the facts, we will determine what the appropriate course is, but the judgment is really up to the Haitian government," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in Washington.
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.
U.S. diplomats have had unlimited access to the 10 detainees, and will monitor any court proceedings, Crowley said. They have not yet been charged.
Members of the church group insisted they were only trying to save abandoned and traumatized children. But they appeared to lack any significant experience with Haiti, international charity work or international adoption regulations.
After their arrest Friday near the border, they were placed in two small, concrete rooms in judicial police headquarters.
"There is no air conditioning, no electricity. It is very disturbing," attorney 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 Monday at a field hospital for either dehydration or the flu. Looking pale as she lay on a green Army cot, the 24-year-old as being guarded by two Haitian police officers.
"They're treating me pretty good," she said. "I'm not concerned. I'm pretty confident that it will all work out."
Investigators have been trying to determine how the Americans got the children, and whether any of the traffickers that have plagued the impoverished country were involved.
Puello said they came from a collapsed orphanage. Their detained spokeswoman, Laura Silsby, said they were "just trying to do the right thing," but she conceded she had not obtained the required passports, birth certificates and adoption certificates for them — a near impossible challenge in the post-quake mayhem.
Bellerive said that without the documents, the children were unlikely to reach the United States, as some of their families might have hoped.
The 33 kids, ranging in age from 2 months to 12 years, arrived with their names written in tape on their shirts at a children's home where some told aid workers they have surviving parents. Haitian officials said they were trying to reunite them.
The prime minister said some of those parents may have knowingly given their kids to the Americans in hopes they would reach the United States — a not uncommon wish for poor families in a country that already had an estimated 380,000 orphans before the quake.
Haiti's overwhelmed government has halted all adoptions unless they were in motion before the earthquake amid fears that parentless or lost children are more vulnerable than ever to being seized and sold. Sex trafficking has been rampant in Haiti. Bellerive's personal authorization is now required for the departure of any child.
The arrested Americans' churches are part of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant denomination, which has extensive humanitarian programs worldwide, but they decided to mount their own rescue mission following the earthquake.