Missionaries turn on their leader over 'kidnapping' of Haiti children

Charity head from Idaho had debt problems and faced legal action

The leader of the Baptist missionaries from Idaho charged with trying to remove 33 Haitian children from the country illegally knew many of the so-called "orphans" still had living parents or other close relatives but tried to move them over the border anyway, her own lawyer, Edwin Coq, has claimed.

Laura Silsby, among the 10 Americans now in custody in Port-au-Prince, where they are accused of "child kidnapping and criminal association," deliberately ignored the lack of correct paperwork to enable her to bring the youngsters into the Dominican Republic legally, he said.

Ms Silsby's companions are well-meaning people caught up in a scheme they did not understand, he went on. "They were naïve," he said of the nine. "They had no idea what was going on and they did not know that they needed official papers to cross the border. But Silsby did."

"I'm going to do everything I can to get the other nine out," Mr Coq, who has apparently quarrelled with Ms Silsby, told reporters in Haiti. "I hope they will be released today."

Meanwhile a newspaper in the missionaries' home state of Idaho claimed that Ms Silsby suffered from financial problems and was involved in a string of legal disputes back home. In two weeks' time she was due to face a jury trial in her home town of Meridian, Idaho, over $40,000 (£26,000) she allegedly owed to the former marketing director of Personalshopper.com, her internet company.

The newspaper Idaho Statesman claimed that Ms Silsby has been the subject of eight civil lawsuits and 14 unpaid wage claims. The state newspaper said she has a long history of failing to pay debts, and has repeatedly been convicted of failing to buy motor insurance, or properly register her car. The newspaper also said the local property where she had decided, shortly after a divorce in 2007, to set up her New Life Children's Refuge organisation, was repossessed in December.

The revelations will provide grist to the mill of children's charities who have been highlighting the risk of child trafficking in the aftermath of last month's earthquake. Coverage of the disaster prompted thousand of well-meaning couples in the US and Europe, to offer new lives to bereaved children. Many of them are happy to pay huge fees, sometimes as much as $30,000 per child, to adopt.

Ms Silsby and her colleagues, who come from two Baptist churches in Idaho, were arrested last Friday trying to drive over Haiti's land border with the Dominican Republic, their bus loaded with children. Officials spoke to the 33 children, aged between two months and 12, and found that roughly two-thirds still had living parents.

The case caused outrage in Haiti, particularly when the Associated Press discovered that many of the children were highly traumatised, and had been handed over after their parents were persuaded that they faced a "better life" overseas. This week, Haiti's Justice Minister, Paul Denis, angrily denounced calls from American news organisations for the accused kidnappers to be deported to face charges at home. "It is Haitian law that has been violated," he said. "It is up to Haitian authorities to hear and judge the case.

The country's Prime Minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, has said the case is "a distraction" for Haitians, with the media "talking more now about 10 people than about one million people suffering on the streets".

Neither of the group's churches would comment yesterday, but relatives of those arrested have repeatedly protested their innocence.

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