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8 church workers headed for home

Leader, one other still jailed in Haiti

Patricia Mazzei, Gerardo Reyes And James H. Burnett Iii McClatchy

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – 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 after a Haitian judge ordered their release.

Laura Silsby, the group’s leader, and Charisa Coulter will remain in jail for more questioning about their attempt to bus the children into the neighboring Dominican Republic.

The others left Port-au-Prince late Wednesday aboard a U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo plane and landed in Miami early today.

The eight freed Americans, most of them members of the Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, looked haggard, shell-shocked and a little irritated as they fought reporters and climbed in silence into a U.S. embassy van that picked them up.

They did not make any comments, though Jim Allen, a Texan welder, 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 only went to Haiti to help 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. The church workers said the children, ages 2 to 12, were orphans but could not provide appropriate documents.

Parents of the children testified last week that they willingly handed over the children. One of the defense attorneys, citing extenuating circumstances after the quake, conceded his clients hadn’t completed paperwork to legally adopt the children and take them out of Haiti.

The case highlighted concerns among 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 adviser to the missionaries, turned out to be wanted in El Salvador for questioning in a child trafficking and prostitution case.

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 is 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 for having visited Haiti before the quake, defense attorney Aviol Fleurant said.

He said he hoped Silsby, an Idaho businesswoman, and Coulter, her assistant, would only remain in jail two or three more days. But under Haitian law, they could be held between two to three months until Examining Judge Bernard Saint-Vil completes his investigation, Lissade said.

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 push for the missionaries’ release. Land wrote in an e-mail Wednesday he was “relieved” that eight of the missionaries were let go.

“They should have been released many days ago,” he said.

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