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 stifilingly 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. As it turned out, 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."
The next session of the trial is expected next week.
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.
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. She would receive credit for time served if she is convicted and sentenced to prison, prosecutors told The Associated Press.
Jean Sainvil, an Atlanta-based pastor born in Haiti who allegedly helped find the children for the missionaries, has also been charged with arranging illegal travel. He is not in Haiti and is being tried in absentia.
The arrest of the Americans 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.
Associated Press Writer Evens Sanon contributed to this report.
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