A Haitian judge releases eight of the missionaries accused of trying to smuggle 33 children out of Haiti after the disastrous quake.
BY PATRICIA MAZZEI, GERARDO REYES AND JAMES H. BURNETT III
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Eight of the 10 American church workers jailed for trying to take 33 children out of Haiti without permission after the Jan. 12 earthquake were freed from their tiny cell Wednesday, put on a flight, and arrived shortly after midnight at Miami International Airport.
At 1:25 a.m. Thursday, after they had cleared U.S. Customs, seven of the missionaries jumped into an elevator at Miami International Airport Hotel. As the doors closed and a gaggle of news cameras flashed before them, one of the men muttered, “Come on, guys, we’re not saying anything.” Meanwhile, in Haiti, Laura Silsby, the group’s leader, and Charisa Coulter will remain in jail for further questioning about their attempt to bus the children into the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Earlier, the eight freed Americans, most of them members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, had looked haggard, shell-shocked and a little irritated as they fought their way through a horde of reporters and climbed in silence into a U.S. embassy van that picked them up. They were taken to the Port-au-Prince airport and left Haiti about 8:30 p.m.
They did not comment, although Jim Allen, a welder from Texas, released a statement saying his “faith means everything to me and I knew this moment would come when the truth would set me free.”
According to his attorney, Allen is not a member of the church; he went to Haiti to help only after receiving an e-mail from a relative.
The 10 Americans had been locked up at a Port-au-Prince police station since being detained Jan. 29 when Haitian officials stopped their bus as it tried to cross the border to the Dominican Republic. The church workers said the children, ages 2 to 12, were orphans, but could not provide documents to verify that they could be taken out of the country.
The children’s parents testified last week that they willingly handed over the children. One of the defense attorneys, citing extenuating circumstances after the quake, conceded his clients had not completed paperwork to legally adopt the children and take them out of Haiti.
The case highlighted concerns of rights groups that Haitian children orphaned or separated from their families after the quake could end up in the hands of child traffickers.
It also rippled beyond Haiti and the United States when Jorge Torres Puello, a Dominican who said he was a legal advisor to the missionaries, turned out to be wanted in El Salvador for questioning in a child-trafficking and prostitution case.
Torres Puello’s wife, Ana Josefa Ramirez Orellana, was arrested in San Salvador last year and accused of helping run a child prostitution ring with girls from Nicaragua. In an interview from jail with El Nuevo Herald, Ramirez said she was innocent and her husband was the one who ran the ring.
“I blame all of this on Jorge Torres, on my husband, because he involved me in all of this without necessity,” she said.
Ramirez also said she has not spoken with Torres Puello since her arrest in May and did not know how he became involved with the Americans in Haiti.
The Americans’ release does not mean the charges of kidnapping and criminal association against them will necessarily be dismissed. Still, defense attorneys said the fact that the judge allowed their clients to leave Haiti without bail or any other conditions was a good sign.
“For the eight that are released, now it’s most likely the charges will be dropped,” said Louis Gary Lissade, a defense attorney for one of the freed Americans.
Silsby and Coulter will face more questioning because they visited Haiti before the quake, defense attorney Aviol Fleurant said.
He said he hoped Silsby, an Idaho businesswoman, and Coulter, her assistant, would remain in jail only two or three more days. But under Haitian law, they could be held up to three months until Examining Judge Bernard Saint-Vil completes his investigation, Lissade said.
In a statement issued late Wednesday, the U.S. State Department said it respects Haiti’s right to conduct its own judicial processes, and that it had provided the detained Americans with assistance to ensure they remained safe.
“Haitian authorities have been cooperative in ensuring the individuals’ safety and welfare since their arrest and we have every expectation this will continue,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said in the statement.
The handling of the case has angered prominent American Baptists in the United States, including Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, who wrote to President Barack Obama to ask him to press for the missionaries’ release. Land wrote in an e-mail Wednesday that he was “relieved” that eight of the missionaries were let go.
“They should have been released many days ago,” he said.
In his statement, Allen, the American welder, said he hoped the release of the eight would redirect attention to Haiti’s post-quake situation.
“People are still suffering and lack basic necessities,” he said. “Please find it in your hearts, as I did in mine, to find ways to give to those in need.”
Miami Herald staff writer Lesley Clark contributed to this report from Washington D.C., staff writer Trenton Daniel contributed from Port-au-Prince and staff writer Robert Samuels contributed from Miami. Special correspondent Juan Carlos Vasquez contributed from San Salvador.