The Haitian judge deciding whether 10 US missionaries should face trial on charges of trying to take a busload of children out of the country says he will recommend that they are released.
Judge Bernard Saint-Vil finished questioning the Americans on Wednesday. He must now send his recommendation to the prosecutor, who may agree or object, but the judge has the final authority to decide whether they stay in custody or go free.
Mr Saint-Vil said he will recommend that all 10 be released but would not elaborate, and it was not clear whether that recommendation means the charges may be dropped.
The judge made his recommendation after questioning the Americans and after hearing testimony from parents who said they willingly gave their children to the Baptist missionaries, believing they would educate and care for them.
“After listening to the families, I see the possibility that they can all be released,” Mr Saint-Vil said.
Gary Lassade, an attorney for one of the Americans, said he expects the judge to issue a final decision later today recommending the case be dropped entirely, though the prosecutor could appeal against that ruling.
The Americans, most from an Idaho Baptist group, were charged last week with child kidnapping and criminal association after being arrested on January 29 while trying to take 33 children, ages two to 12, across the border to an orphanage they were trying to set up in the Dominican Republic.
The following day, group leader Laura Silsby of Meridian, Idaho, said the children were obtained either from orphanages or from distant relatives. She said only children who were found not to have living parents or relatives who could care for them might be put up for adoption.
However, at least 20 of the children are from a single village and have living parents. Some of the parents said they gave their children to the missionaries on the promise the Americans would educate them and let relatives visit.
In a brief conversation in the jail where they have been held, the missionaries refused to be interviewed by reporters.
“We’ve said all we’re going to say for now. We don’t want to talk now,” Silsby said.
The women were held separately from the men, who shared their cell with nine Haitian men.
“We will not talk unless our lawyer is present,” said Paul Thompson, pastor of the Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho.
A Dallas attorney for one of the missionaries says his client was recruited just 48 hours before the group left last month for the Dominican Republic on what Silsby termed an emergency rescue mission.
“He did not know many of the other people who were on the mission trip or what other people were going to do, or about paperwork,” the attorney said.
Silsby had decided last summer to create an orphanage in the Dominican Republic and in November registered the non-profit New Life Children’s Refuge foundation in Idaho.
After Haiti’s catastrophic January 12 earthquake, she accelerated the plan and recruited her fellow missionaries. Silsby told reporters she was only interested in saving suffering children.
After her arrest, however, she said she did not have all the Haitian papers required to take the children out of the country.
A Dominican diplomat said he warned her that without those papers she could be arrested.