PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti's prime minister said Monday it's clear to him that the 10 U.S. Baptists who tried to take 33 children out of his quake-ravaged country without permission "knew what they were doing was wrong."
But Prime Minister Max Bellerive also told The Associated Press his country is open to having the Americans go before courts in the United States because his own nation's judicial system was devastated by the Jan. 12 earthquake.
The aborted Baptist "rescue mission" has become a distraction for a crippled government trying to provide basic life support to millions of earthquake survivors.
But the prime minister said some legal system needs to determine whether the Americans were acting in good faith – as they claim – or are child traffickers in a nation that has struggled to fight exploitation of children.
"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," he told the AP.
"And it is clear now that they knew what they were doing was wrong."
If they were acting in good faith, "perhaps the courts will try to be more lenient with them," he said.
Members of the church group, most from Idaho, have insisted they only trying to rescue child victims of the quake. Few if any had any significant experience in international charity.
Since their arrest Friday near the border, the church group has been held inside two small concrete rooms in the same judicial police headquarters building where ministers have makeshift offices and give disaster response briefings. They have not yet been charged.
One of their lawyers said they were being treated poorly: "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 being treated Monday at the University of Miami's field hospital near the capital's international airport. Looking pale and speaking with difficulty from a green Army cot, the 24-year-old Coulter said she had either severe dehydration or the flu. A diabetic, she initially thought her insulin had gone bad in the heat.
Two Haitian police officers stood besides the cot, guarding her.
"They're treating me pretty good," she said, adding that Haitian police didn't bring her group any food or water, but that U.S. officials have delivered water and MREs to eat. "I'm not concerned. I'm pretty confident that it will all work out," she said.
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.
Their detained spokeswoman, Laura Silsby, conceded that she had not obtained the proper Haitian documents, but told the AP from detention that the group was "just trying to do the right thing" amid the chaos.
The 33 kids, ranging in age from 2 months to 12 years and with their names written in tape on their shirts, were being sheltered in a temporary children's home, where some told aid workers that they have surviving parents. Lassegue said the Social Affairs Ministry was trying to find them.
"One (9-year-old) girl was crying, and saying, 'I am not an orphan. I still have my parents.' And she thought she was going on a summer camp or a boarding school or something like that," said George Willeit, a spokesman for the SOS Children's Village.
Foreigners adopting children from the developing world have grabbed headlines recently – Madonna tried to adopt a girl from Malawi amid criticism from locals, while Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have a burgeoning multicultural brood.
But in Haiti, a long tradition of foreign military intervention coupled with the earthquake that destroyed much of the capital and plunged it even deeper into poverty, have made this issue even more emotionally charged. Of 20 Haitian parents interviewed in a tent camp by the AP on Sunday, only one said she would not give up her children to give them a chance at a better life.
"Some parents I know have already given their children to foreigners," said Adonis Helman, 44. "I've been thinking how I will choose which one I may give."
"My parents died in the earthquake. My husband has gone. Giving up one of my kids would at least give them a chance," said Saintanne Petit-Frere, 40, a mother of six. "My only fear is that they would forget me, but that wouldn't affect my decision."
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. Prime Minister Max Bellerive's personal authorization is now required for the departure of any child.
"For UNICEF, what is important is that for children separated from their parents, we do everything possible to have their families traced and to reunite them," said Kent Page, a spokesman for the group in Haiti. "They have to be protected from traffickers or people who wish to exploit these children."
The arrested Americans include members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, and the East Side Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. The churches are part of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is America's largest Protestant denomination and has extensive humanitarian programs worldwide, but they decided to mount their own "rescue mission" following the earthquake.
Associated Press Writers Carolina Correa in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jessie Bonner and Keith Ridler in Idaho and Rachel Zoll in New York contributed to this story.