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U.S. missionaries sent to separate Haitian prisons; no ruling on bail

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Missionaries split up
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Attorney says he believes group's leader is responsible for the situation
  • 10 U.S. missionaries moved to separate prisons; judge has not yet ruled on bail
  • They are charged with kidnapping for trying to take 33 children out of Haiti
  • Hillary Clinton joins Candy Crowley on "State of the Union" Sunday to discuss Haiti

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- With 10 American Baptist missionaries in Haiti now charged with kidnapping for attempting to take 33 children out of the country, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Friday the case is for Haitian courts to decide.

"Obviously this is a matter for the Haitian judicial system," Clinton told reporters at the State Department. "We're going to continue to provide support as we do in every instance like this to American citizens who have been charged and hope that this matter can be resolved in an expeditious way, but it is something that a sovereign nation is pursuing based on the evidence that it presented when the charges were announced."

Clinton said the U.S. Embassy in Haiti is providing consular services and the American ambassador is speaking with his counterparts in the Haitian government.

"We have full access" to the Americans, she said.

A judge has not ruled on the missionaries' petition for bail, said their attorney, Edwin Coq. However, under Haitian law, anyone accused of kidnapping a child is not eligible for bail, the attorney general's office said earlier.

The 10 missionaries, including group leader Laura Silsby, were charged Thursday with kidnapping children and criminal association. Haitian authorities split up the group, which was being held in a city jail, on Friday, Coq said.

Coq said the five men have been sent to the national penitentiary, which was damaged in the massive January 12 earthquake that leveled much of Port-au-Prince. The five women have been sent to a prison in nearby Petionville.

Court hearings will be held Monday and Tuesday for his clients, Coq said.

Conviction on the kidnapping charge would carry a maximum penalty of life in prison; the criminal association charge would carry a penalty of three to nine years, according to a former justice minister.

The Americans were turned back a week ago as they tried to take the children across the border into the Dominican Republic without proper documentation. They said they were going to house them in a converted hotel in that country and later move them to an orphanage they were building there.

The Americans have said they were just trying to help the children leave the earthquake-stricken country.

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Some of the detained Americans have said they thought they were helping orphans, but their interpreters told CNN this week that they were present when group members spoke with some of the children's parents. Some parents in a village outside Port-au-Prince said they had willingly given their children over to the Americans, who promised them a better life, and who said the parents could see their children whenever they wanted to.

Coq said he felt Silsby, who was leading the missionary group, was responsible for the situation.

"Let me tell you my personal impression," Coq said Friday, "the nine other people are victims. They knew absolutely nothing about these stories. They were extremely touched by the disaster which struck Haiti. They only came here to show their solidarity and compassion.

"They did not know this story that Laura wanted to leave with children."

The Dominican consul general has said he warned Silsby about trying to cross the border without proper documents.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told CNN's "Larry King Live" Thursday that the judge in the case has three months to decide whether to prosecute. "We hope that he will decide long before those three months," he said. "He can release them, he can ask to prosecute them."

If a decision is made to prosecute, the case would be heard before a jury, he said.

Bellerive told CNN the Haitian government was open to the possibility of the case being transferred to a U.S. court, but said the request would have to come from the United States. "Until now, I was not asked," he said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed that "we have not had any discussions with Haitian officials about shifting prosecution to the United States."

"This is a Haitian legal process. Obviously the 10 American citizens have been charged under Haitian law," he said.

"It would appear, based on the reporting that we've seen, that they ... were attempting to move those children out of Haiti without the authorization of the Haitian government. We recognize that that is a potential violation of Haitian law. The judge in this case has interviewed the Americans, he has evaluated the evidence that has been presented to him."

U.S. officials are talking with Haitian officials about how the cases will unfold, and the United States will continue to monitor the situation closely, Crowley said.

Former President Bill Clinton, the U.N. envoy to Haiti, said Haitian leaders don't want the issue to become a distraction to the recovery effort.

"I think what's important now is for the government of Haiti and the government of the United States to get together and work through this because the government of Haiti understands that they're not looking for some big fight here," Clinton said Friday. "They just want to protect their children."

He added, "I think they will find a way to defuse the crisis and work through this."

Government approval is needed for any Haitian child to leave the country, and the group acknowledged that the children had no passports.

Some members of the group belong to the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, where the pastor asked for privacy and would not discuss the matter.

"I know you have many questions but we don't have answers right now," said Assistant Pastor Drew Ham in a note to reporters.

CNN's Jill Dougherty in Washington and Lonzo Cook in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.

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