Eight of 10 missionaries arrive in U.S. after release from Haiti jail

A Haitian judge says he'll free some of the 10 U.S. missionaries arrested on charges of child kidnapping last month, allowing them to leave the country. (Feb. 17)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 18, 2010; 1:11 AM

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 possibly a trial in Haitian courts.

The eight, looking sweaty after three weeks in a Port-au-Prince prison, were driven to the airport in a U.S. Embassy van and left on a military flight to the United States. Lt. Kenneth Scholz with the U.S. Southern Command said a U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane carrying the Americans landed a few minutes after midnight Thursday at Miami International Airport, the Associated Press reported.

Despite the obligation to return if summoned, the missionaries' release took the edge off a confused legal struggle that had cast a cloud over 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 people.

Two of the missionaries -- Laura Silsby and Charisa Coulter -- were not released, their attorney said, because the investigating magistrate wants to question them further. In particular, the attorney said, the magistrate wants to ask about visits to Haiti before the ill-fated trip last month in which they and their 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 chaotic 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 himself 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 last week and then 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 to avoid displaying an overbearing attitude, emphasized that the case was in the hands of the Haitian judicial system and declined to press publicly for the missionaries' release.

The 10 Americans, meanwhile, languished in a prison at the Judicial Police headquarters where President Rene Preval has installed his offices since the National Palace collapsed during tremor.

Aviol Fleurant, a lawyer for nine of the 10, predicted Wednesday that Silsby and Coulter would soon be released after further interrogation and 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."

Fleurant said he was to receive $40,000 from the Americans' families to assure their defense but that Puello ran off with $30,000 of the defense fund. He added that he was not in the case for money but to defend the missionaries against what he called a violation of human rights brought on by an excess of zeal among Haitian judicial authorities.

"Now the world knows the American missionaries came to Haiti with a good heart," he said.

Gary Lissade, a former justice minister who represents missionary Jim Allen, said he understood the desire of Haitian investigators to make sure poor families were not being taken advantage of and that children were not falling victim to traffickers. But, he added, three weeks seemed like a long time to determine what happened and make a decision to set them free.

"I hope today's actions will allow everyone to focus again on the dire conditions that remain in Haiti," Allen said in a statement released by his attorneys in Amarillo, Tex. "People are still suffering and lack basic necessities."

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