No early release for jailed U.S. missionaries

Image: Court Hearing Held For Missionaries Suspected Of Taking Kids Out Of Haiti
Laura Silsby, the leader of a group of American Baptist missionaries, is escorted by Haitian national police while appearing in court on Friday.Mario Tama / Getty Images
/ Source: news services

Ten U.S. Baptist missionaries charged with child kidnapping returned to jail Friday after failing to persuade a judge to grant them provisional release pending the outcome of their case, their lawyer said.

The weary looking Americans were led one by one into the back of a police van after spending half the day at a courthouse in the rubble-strewn capital. A judge scheduled three more days of hearings next week, starting Monday, defense attorney Edwin Coq told reporters.

Haitian officials at the court declined to answer questions from journalists about the case. The missionaries did not respond to questions and Coq said they had been ordered by the judge not to discuss their case.

The lawyer said that at least nine of the Americans — all but the group's leader, Laura Silsby — clearly did not know they lacked the proper papers to remove 33 children from Haiti following the devastating earthquake and they should be immediately released.

"They came to Haiti to help. They came in solidarity," he said. "It is scandalous that they are being detained."

Prior to the closed hearing, Coq told reporters he would ask the judge to grant the detainees "provisional release," a type of bail without money posted. He said they should be allowed to leave Haiti until their trial, a date for which has not been established.

An investigating judge charged the Americans on Thursday with kidnapping for trying to take 33 children across the border into the Dominican Republic on Jan. 29 without documentation.

Coq says Silsby knew she couldn't take the youngsters without proper paperwork. But he characterized the other nine missionaries as innocents caught up in actions they didn't understand.

The missionaries were escorted into the building one by one by Haitian police who covered their heads with a blue sheet.

The Baptist group, most of whose members are from two Idaho churches, insisted they were rescuing abandoned children and orphans after the Jan. 12 quake.

But at least 22 of the children, ranging in age from 2 to 12, have parents. Some of the parents told The Associated Press they gave them up willingly because the missionaries promised the children a better life.

NBC News reported that the family of one of the missionaries had asked the U.S. to intervene, accusing the Haitian defense team of trying to extort the church members in return for their immediate release.

A source told NBC that the defense team had demanded $60,000 for the release of all 10. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue of release had not been resolved, said one family wrote a letter to the U.S. Consulate describing the situation.

'A safe return home'
Each of the missionaries is charged with one count of kidnapping, which carries a sentence of five to 15 years in prison, and one of criminal association, punishable by three to nine years. Coq said the case was assigned a judge and a verdict could take three months.

"Obviously this is a matter for the Haitian judicial system," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday.

Clinton's husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, now a special U.N. envoy for Haiti relief, met with President Rene Preval in Port-au-Prince on Friday, but said his visit had nothing to do with the detained Americans.

Later, Clinton said the U.S. and Haitian governments should try to resolve the issue quickly.

"I think what's important now is that the government of Haiti and the government of the United States to get together and go through this because the government of Haiti, as I understand it, is not looking for a fight. They just want to protect children," he said during a visit to an AIDS clinic.

"The only thing I ask is both sides try to work through it as soon as possible."

In Idaho, the church that sponsored the group's mission appealed for the Americans' safe return.

"We believe the best thing that could happen not only for our loved ones, whom we miss dearly, but also for the people of Haiti, is for their government to release them as quickly as possible, allowing the world's attention be focused where it should be — on helping a nation that experienced a devastating earthquake," Pastor Clint Henry of Central Valley Baptist Church said in a statement.

Three national leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention sent a letter Friday to President Barack Obama urging him to "do everything within the authority of your office to secure a safe return home" for the detainees.

The leaders added that they could not "speak authoritatively about the motives and actions" of those detained, saying they went to Haiti on their own and weren't part of the Southern Baptist Convention's international relief efforts.

Silsby, who wanted to create an orphanage for Haitian children in the neighboring Dominican Republic, and the other nine went to Haiti after the earthquake to gather children for their project.

Most of the children were from the village of Callebas, where people said they handed the kids over because they couldn't feed or clothe them. Their stories contradicted Silsby's account that the children came from collapsed orphanages or were handed over by distant relatives.

Silsby also said she believed she had all the necessary documents to take the children. The Dominican consul in Haiti, however, said he warned Silsby her mission would be considered child trafficking if she lacked adoption papers signed by Haitian officials.