PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A U.S. missionary should spend six months in prison for her failed attempt to remove 33 children from Haiti following the Jan. 12 earthquake, a prosecutor said Thursday on the first day of her trial.
Prosecutor Sonel Jean-Francois told the court that Laura Silsby knew she was breaking the law by trying to take the children without proper documents to an orphanage she was starting in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
“Laura recognized she violated the law,” Jean-Francois said as lawyers and a small group of spectators crowded into a a stiflingly hot tent in the parking lot of the quake-damaged courthouse.
He spoke after the Idaho woman testified. Silsby, who was leader of a group of Baptists detained by authorities, was the only person to testify on the first day of the trial. She spent much of the rest of the session reading the Bible.
The 40-year-old businesswoman told the court she thought the children were orphans whose homes were destroyed in the earthquake. An Associated Press investigation later revealed all the children had at least one living parent, who had turned their children over to the group in hopes of securing better lives for them.
“One week after the earthquake I left my family and my home to help children that had been orphaned in the earthquake,” Silsby said. “We came here with a heart to help.”
Silsby was originally charged with kidnapping and criminal association. She now faces one count of arranging illegal travel under a 1980 statute restricting travel out of Haiti signed by then-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.
A six-month sentence is the minimum jail time recommended under the law. She would receive credit for time served if convicted and sentenced to prison, prosecutors told the AP.
Silsby has been in custody since Jan. 29, when she and nine other Americans were detained at the Dominican border. The other missionaries have all been released and charges against them dismissed.
A defense request for her to be released immediately was denied.
Prosecutors also asked for six months in prison for Jean Sainvil, an Atlanta-based pastor born in Haiti who allegedly helped find the children for the missionaries. He is not in Haiti and is being tried in absentia.
The next session of the trial is expected next week.
The Americans’ arrest came as the Haitian government was trying to control adoptions to prevent the trafficking of children after the earthquake, which killed a government-estimated 230,000 to 300,000 people and left some 1.3 million homeless.
Silsby sat quietly through Thursday’s proceedings, dressed in a black shirt and denim skirt, while her Haitian lawyers argued with the prosecution. Hers was the only foreign face in the room other than AP journalists. Three men arrested for other crimes sat behind her in handcuffs.
The argument came down to a simple point on both sides:
Prosecutors said she knowingly took children to the border without papers.
“If the United States had an earthquake, that would not give you the right to take children,” Jean-Francois said.
The defense responded in an often rambling address that Silsby was trying to help earthquake survivors under societal breakdown, with bodies in the street and government ministries destroyed.
“Why take the chance away from Haitian kids to have an opportunity for a better life?” asked lawyer Jean-Rene Tesir.
Silsby’s testimony came early in the trial, given as she stood beside the desk of Judge Denis Cyprien. She spoke calmly in a low voice, choking back tears when she talked about the children she tried to transport, as a clerk rang a tin bell for order.
She identified her occupation as “manager of an orphanage,” referring to the institution she had hoped to create in the northern Dominican Republic. There are no kids there; the children she tried to transport have been returned to their parents.
Sometimes Silsby spoke so quietly that the translator couldn’t hear her. After she muttered her address twice, he shrugged and said in Creole to the clerk transcribing proceedings by hand, “somewhere in the United States.”
In another strange moment he translated a judge’s question as “Did you appreciate being arrested?”
The missionary told the judge that she met the children for the first time in front of a flattened building and described being turned away from closed government ministries in her attempt to get them documents.
“They said there was nobody there to help me,” Silsby said.
Associated Press writer Evens Sanon contributed to this story