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8 of 10 missionaries freed from Haitian jail, return to U.S.

By Edward Cody
Thursday, February 18, 2010; A08

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Eight of 10 U.S. missionaries jailed in Haiti on charges of child abduction were released on their own recognizance Wednesday pending a continuing criminal investigation and a possible trial in Haitian courts.

The eight, looking sweaty after three weeks in prison, were driven to the airport in a U.S. Embassy van. According to Haitian sources, they left on a military flight to the United States. Although the missionaries are obliged to return to Haiti if summoned, their release took the edge off a confused legal struggle that beclouded what officials have described as the largest U.S. disaster relief program in history to help Haiti overcome an earthquake that killed an estimated 200,000.

Two other missionaries -- Laura Silsby and Charisa Coulter -- were not released from a Port-au-Prince prison, their attorney said, because the investigating magistrate wants to question them further. The lawyer said that the magistrate wants to ask about visits to Haiti before the ill-fated trip last month, in which they and fellow missionaries tried to take 33 children from Haiti to the neighboring Dominican Republic without authorization.

The Baptist missionaries, most of them from an Idaho church group, depicted their actions as a well-intentioned attempt to help children flee the conditions afflicting Haiti since the Jan. 12 earthquake. But Haitian authorities arrested them as they arrived at the border Jan. 29, saying that some of the children were not orphans and that the Americans had accepted them from often distraught parents without going through proper channels.

Their case was further complicated when it became known that a Dominican resident who offered his services as a lawyer for the missionaries was wanted for questioning about a child-trafficking ring in El Salvador and about immigrant smuggling in the United States. The self-appointed adviser, a U.S. citizen identified as Jorge Puello, proclaimed his innocence and dropped out of sight.

In addition, an earlier lawyer for the group was fired after he was accused of offering a bribe to the investigating magistrate looking into the case. U.S. officials, eager not to appear overbearing, emphasized that the case was in the hands of the Haitian judicial system and declined to press publicly for the missionaries' release.

Aviol Fleurant, a lawyer for nine of the 10, predicted Wednesday that charges against all 10 would be dropped.

"There was no human trafficking," he said. "There was no kidnapping. There was no violation of Haitian law."

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