Thursday, February 18, 2010

Judge Releases Eight Americans Jailed for Child Trafficking in Haiti

February 18, 2010

Judge Releases Eight Americans Jailed in Haiti

New York Times

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A Haitian judge on Wednesday ordered the release of 8 of the 10 Americans arrested here on child abduction charges but decided that two members of the group, including its leader, would remain in jail for additional questioning.

The judge, Bernard Saint-Vil, told lawyers for the Americans that he freed the members of the group, five of whom were from a Baptist congregation in Idaho, after parents of some of the 33 children with the Americans testified that they had voluntarily handed over their children to them. The Americans said they were planning to house the children in an orphanage across the border in the Dominican Republic.

The eight Americans emerged from a jail here on Wednesday looking exhausted and were accompanied by American diplomats to the airport. The group flew out on an Air Force plane, Reuters reported, and landed Thursday morning in Miami.

The arrests of the Americans touched a raw nerve here, highlighting fears that criminal networks would take advantage of the post-earthquake chaos to engage in child trafficking. Some of the children are not orphans, and it soon emerged that a Dominican adviser to the group was wanted in El Salvador on sex-trafficking charges and in the United States on charges of smuggling illegal immigrants into the country.

While Judge Saint-Vil’s ruling allows eight of the Americans to leave Haiti on the condition that they return to the country to answer further questions in the case, it requires that Laura Silsby, the Idaho businesswoman who led the group, and her live-in nanny, Charisa Coulter, remain in jail to answer questions about traveling to Haiti before the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Some of the freed Americans had already contended this month that they were misled by Ms. Silsby, who had faced more than a dozen legal complaints connected to her online shopping business before she persuaded fellow Baptists from Idaho to assist her in setting up an orphanage for Haitian children.

“We are disappointed that all in the group are not being released,” said Terry Michaelson, a lawyer for Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, where five of the detainees, including Ms. Silsby and Ms. Coulter, attended church.

The church mission’s lawyer had put forward about $7,000 to help pay for the first month’s rent for the orphanage that Ms. Silsby planned to establish in the Dominican Republic.

“Laura had this dream to help, and when the earthquake occurred she recruited some fellow church folks,” Mr. Michaelson said. “The church had absolutely no reason to believe that her activities were anything other than purely altruistic, and we just hope her and Charisa come home soon.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Ms. Coulter, who is diabetic, was briefly taken to a field hospital here for treatment but was taken back to jail soon after. Months before the earthquake, Ms. Silsby and Ms. Coulter began working on their idea to create an orphanage on nine acres in the Dominican Republic, relatives of the two women said.

The two women visited Haiti and the Dominican Republic last summer to finish their plans, and Ms. Coulter kept a photo album online of her August 2009 trip to an area in the Dominican Republic near the Haiti border.

Ms. Silsby’s group’s mission plan posted online states that at the time of the earthquake she was “in the process of buying land and building an orphanage in Magante on the Northern Coast of the Dominican Republic.” Public documents indicate that on Jan. 8, an organization called The Dominican New Life Children’s Home was registered in the Dominican Republic to Ms. Silsby and a real estate broker who had helped locate the land.

While the group acknowledged trying to take the children out of Haiti without the proper documentation, Aviol Fleurant, a lawyer for the Americans, said in an interview that all members of the group were not guilty of child abduction charges. Still, he acknowledged that the emergence of the group’s Dominican adviser, Jorge Puello, had made things more complicated. Mr. Fleurant said that he had been paid only $10,000 of his $40,000 fee, and that Mr. Puello had disappeared with the rest of the money.

“Puello presented himself as a man of God, and now look what happened,” said Mr. Fleurant, adding that he was told by Ms. Silsby that Mr. Puello had offered his services to the group after they were arrested. “I’m looking for my money, and Laura Silsby is still in jail.”

Simon Romero reported from Port-au-Prince, and Ian Urbina from Washington.

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