US missionaries may spend weekend in jail as Haiti marks one month since quake

By Frank Bajak, AP
Friday, February 12, 2010

US missionaries may spend weekend in Haiti lockup

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Ten U.S. missionaries arrested trying to leave earthquake-crippled Haiti with a busload of children may be spending the weekend in jail despite a judge recommending their provisional release.

The prosecutor who got the case Thursday afternoon told The Associated Press he would respond to the judge by next week. All public offices are closed Friday, the quake’s one-month anniversary that is a national day of mourning.

The recommendation by Judge Bernard Saint-Vil was the best news the Americans have had in the two weeks they’ve been held in a stuffy, grimy jail since being arrested.

Saint-Vil has the final word on whether to free them, but Prosecutor-General Josephe Mannes Louis first has a chance to raise objections. The judge told the AP on Thursday that he was accepting a request from defense attorneys to let the Americans go free while the investigation continues.

It is unclear when the missionaries, most from an Idaho Baptist church group, might be released. It is also not clear whether they would be allowed to leave the country if the judge grants a provisional release.

Saint-Vil told the AP it was too early to say.

Also unexplained is what bearing such a decision could have on whether the missionaries go to trial.

On Thursday, Saint-Vil privately questioned the last of a group of parents who said they willingly gave their children to the Baptist group, believing the Americans would educate and care for them.

“After listening to the families, I see the possibility that they can all be released,” the judge told the AP. “I am recommending that all 10 Americans be released.”

The Americans were charged last week with child kidnapping and criminal association after being arrested Jan. 29 while trying to take 33 children, ages 2 to 12, across the border to an orphanage they were trying to set up in the Dominican Republic.

The following day, group leader Laura Silsby of Meridian, Idaho, told the AP the children were obtained either from orphanages or from distant relatives. She said only children who were found not to have living parents or relatives who could care for them might be put up for adoption.

However, at least 20 of the children are from a single village and have living parents. Some of the parents told the AP they willingly turned over their children to the missionaries because they could no longer feed or otherwise care for them — the children’s school and many of their homes collapsed in the quake.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had not personally intervened in the case. The U.S.-based legal team for one of the missionaries, Jim Allen of Amarillo, Texas, had asked her to do so in a letter Tuesday.

“We have been very careful not to intervene specifically in this case,” Crowley said. “This is a matter for Haitian authorities to resolve.”

Crowley added that Washington was “satisfied with the overall conduct of this case.”

Silsby decided last summer to create an orphanage in the Dominican Republic and in November registered the nonprofit New Life Children’s Refuge Inc. in Idaho.

After Haiti’s catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake, she accelerated the plan and recruited her fellow missionaries. Silsby told the AP she was interested only in saving suffering children.

However, she did not have the Haitian papers required to take the children out of the country, and a Dominican diplomat told the AP he warned her the day the missionaries were detained that without those papers she could be arrested.

Haitian government officials view the case both as a distraction to the greater issues of earthquake relief and as a matter of national sovereignty. The Americans’ case has provided a government widely criticized at home for its response to the quake with an opportunity to show it is functioning.

The case has tapped into fears in Haiti that traffickers would take advantage of the chaos since the quake to abduct children.

It also has irritated Haitian government officials conducting business out of the same police station used to jail the Americans. Nearly every government building was destroyed in the quake.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive has lamented the fact that journalists are paying more attention to 10 Americans than to the 3 million Haitians in need of help.

Attorneys for Allen, the Texas detainee, echoed those sentiments in a statement Thursday evening: “Haitian and U.S. officials must bring this misunderstanding to a prompt end, so that Americans and Haitians can return to the important task of relief and rebuilding.”

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