Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) — Ten Americans detained last week while trying to take 33 Haitian children out of the country were charged Thursday with kidnapping children and criminal association, a government official said.
Information Minister Marie Laurence Lassegue’s announcement came shortly after the five men and five women left a hearing at the prosecutor’s office.
Under Haitian law, anyone accused of kidnapping a child is not eligible for bail, the attorney general’s office said.
Conviction on the kidnapping charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison; the criminal association charge carries a penalty of three to nine years, according to a former justice minister.
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told CNN’s "Larry King Live" on Thursday night 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.
Told that the families of the detained Americans had pleaded for him to intervene, Bellerive said he could not.
"Those people are not in the hands of the government; they are in the hands of justice," he said. "We have to respect the law. It is clear that the people violated the law. What we have to understand is if they did it in good faith."
Bellerive said 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.
He expressed gratitude for the work of the vast majority of Americans who have helped in the aftermath of the January 12 earthquake that he said killed at least 212,000 people.
The Americans were turned back Friday 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.
"We can confirm that the 10 American citizens remain in custody in Haiti," said State Department deputy spokesman Gordon Duguid. "We continue to provide appropriate consular assistance and to monitor developments in the legal case."
The Americans have said they were just trying to help the children leave the earthquake-stricken country.
Some of the detained Americans have said they thought they were helping orphans, but their interpreters said Wednesday that they were present when group members spoke with 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 they could see their children whenever they wanted to.
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. One of the church’s ministers asked for privacy and would not discuss the matter.
"I know you have many questions but we don’t have answers right now," Drew Ham, assistant pastor, said in a note to reporters.
P.J. Crowley, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, has said that U.S. officials have been given unlimited consular access to the Americans and that U.S. and Haitian authorities are "working to try to ascertain what happened [and] the motive behind these people.
"Clearly, there are questions about procedure as to whether they had the appropriate paperwork to move the children," he said Wednesday.
CNN’s Karl Penhaul in Port-au-Prince, Dan Simon in Meridian, Ohio, and Jill Dougherty in Washington contributed to this report.