Haiti judge frees 8 of 10 American missionaries

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - Eight American missionaries were
freed from a Haitian jail Wednesday, nearly three weeks after being
charged with kidnapping for trying to take a group of children out
of the quake-stricken country.
The eight - looking bedraggled and sweaty - walked out of the
Haitian jail escorted by U.S. diplomats just after dusk. They
waited until they were safely inside a white van before flashing
smiles, waving and giving a thumbs up to reporters.
Hours earlier, judge Bernard Saint-Vil told The Associated Press
that eight of the 10 missionaries were free to leave without bail
or other conditions after parents testified they voluntarily handed
their children over to the missionaries.
"The parents of the kids made statements proving that they can
be released," he said, adding that still wants to question the
group's leader and her nanny.
The group planned to fly out of Haiti late Wednesday, defense
attorney Aviol Fleurant said. A spokesman for Idaho Sen. Jim Risch
said they would be flown to Miami.
The missionaries, most from two Baptist churches in Idaho, are
accused of trying to take 33 Haitian children to the Dominican
Republic on Jan. 29 without proper documents. Their detentions came
just as aid officials were urging a halt to short-cut adoptions in
the wake of the earthquake.
The missionaries denied accusations of trafficking and said they
were on a humanitarian mission to rescue child quake victims by
taking them to a hastily prepared orphanage in the Dominican
Group leader Laura Silsby originally said they were taking only
orphaned and abandoned children, but reporters found that several
of the children were handed over to the group by their parents, who
said they hoped the Baptists would give them a better life.
Saint-Vil said he still wants to question Silsby and nanny
Charisa Coulter about their visit to Haiti in December before the
earthquake, but he asked for Coulter to be hospitalized because of
her diabetes.
Earlier Wednesday, Coulter, of Boise, Idaho, briefly received
treatment but was then taken back to jail.
"We are very pleased that Paul, Silas, Drew, and Steve have
been released by the Haitian court," said Caleb Stegall, a Kansas
district attorney who has been helping some of the defendants.
"Their families are relieved and anxious to have them safely home,
and we are turning all of our energies toward bringing them back as
safely and quickly as possible,"
Gary Lissade, the attorney for freed detainee Jim Allen, said he
expected the charges to be dropped against the eight.
A legal group issued a statement on behalf of Allen, who is from
Amarillo, Texas.
"My faith means everything to me, and I knew this moment would
come when the truth would set me free," Allen said in a statement
issued by the Liberty Legal Institute in Plano, Texas. "For those
whose cases have not been resolved, we will continue to pray for
their safe return."
Relatives in the U.S. received the news of the judge's decision
"Until I know they're on a plane on their way home, it's hard
to react," said Drew Ham, assistant pastor of a Baptist church in
Meridian, Idaho.
Silsby's sister, Kim Barton, said learning that her sister could
not leave Haiti was difficult.
"At this point I don't have any comment. I don't know any more
than you do," Barton said.
The group earlier had been embarrassed by revelations that a man
who briefly served as their legal adviser and spokesman in the
Dominican Republic is wanted on people-smuggling charges in the
United States and El Salvador.
U.S. marshals said they are hunting for Jorge Puello, who was
already being pursued by authorities in the Dominican Republic on
an Interpol warrant out of El Salvador, where police say he led a
ring that lured young women and girls into prostitution. He also
had an outstanding warrant for a U.S. parole violation.
Puello said he volunteered to help the missionaries after they
were jailed and said he never met any of them before they were
Puello - who surged into the spotlight by providing food,
medicine and legal assistance to the jailed Americans -
acknowledged in a phone interview with the AP on Tuesday that he is
named in a 2003 federal indictment out of Vermont that accuses him
of smuggling illegal immigrants from Canada into the United States.
He said he is innocent of the accusations.
Puello said he was in Panama and preparing to return to El
Salvador to fight the charges against him there. His whereabouts
could not be confirmed.
Puello's involvement with the Americans began to unravel when
authorities in El Salvador noted his resemblance to the suspect in
the sex trafficking case. He acknowledged on Monday that he is in
fact the suspect but said he was wrongly accused and will fight the

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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