Detained Americans should be released, Haitian judge says

  • Thu Feb 11th, 2010 10:36am
  • News

Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The Haitian judge deciding whether 10 U.S. missionaries should face trial on charges of trying to take a busload of children out of the country said today he will recommend that they be released provisionally while the investigation continues.

Judge Bernard Saint-Vil 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.

Saint-Vil said he was making his recommendation a day after questioning the Americans and 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,” Saint-Vil told The Associated Press. “I am recommending that all 10 Americans be released.”

Later, Saint-Vil said he would recommend provisional freedom for the detainees while the investigation continues. But it wasn’t clear whether their possible release means they would be allowed to leave Haiti, or what implications the judge’s decision could have on whether the charges may be dropped.

By midday today, Saint-Vil had yet to deliver his formal recommendation to the prosecutor.

Gary Lassade, an attorney for one of the Americans, said he expects the judge will recommend the case be dropped — though the prosecutor could also appeal that ruling.

The Americans, most from an Idaho Baptist group, were charged last week with child kidnapping and criminal association after being arrested Jan. 29 while trying to take 33 children, ages 2 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, told the AP that 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 told the AP they willingly turned over their children to the missionaries on the promise the Americans would educate them and let relatives visit.

In a brief conversation afterward through cell bars in the stuffy, grimy jail where they have been held, the missionaries refused to be interviewed by the AP.

“We’ve said all we’re going to say for now. We don’t want to talk now,” Silsby said. “Maybe tomorrow.”

The women were held separately from the men, who shared their cell with nine Haitian men, some of whom played checkers on the cell floor.

“We will not talk unless our lawyer is present,” said Paul Thompson, pastor of the Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho. Lassade represents Thompson’s cousin, Jim Allen of Amarillo, Texas.

A Dallas attorney for Allen, Hiram Sasser, told the AP that 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,” Sasser said.

Silsby had decided last summer to create an orphanage in the Dominican Republic and in November registered the nonprofit New Life Children’s Refuge foundation in Idaho.

After Haiti’s catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake, she accelerated the plan and recruited her fellow missionaries. Silsby told the AP she was only interested in saving suffering children.

She told the AP after her arrest, however, that she did not have all the Haitian papers required to take the children out of the country.

A Dominican diplomat told the AP he warned her that without those papers she could be arrested.

Meanwhile, a rice vendor who doctors say may have survived 27 days under the rubble after Haiti’s devastating earthquake was in stable condition and eating Wednesday.

Doctors were skeptical at first about the man’s story — people can survive as long as nine weeks without food, but die quickly without water. The last confirmed survivor was a 16-year-old girl removed from rubble 15 days after the Jan. 12 quake.

They turned into believers, however, after he became lucid enough to tell his tale. He told health care workers that he was selling rice in a flea market when the quake destroyed the building, trapping him under the debris — apparently along with water or food.

“He’s doing very well,” said Dr. David Chong, who was treating the man at a University of Miami Medishare field hospital in Haiti’s capital. “We’ve been giving him intravenous fluids and he’s tolerating them well. We also gave him a Hershey bar. He was pretty happy about that.”

The man — identified as 28-year-old Evans Monsigrace — had bad scrapes on his feet after being pulled from the rubble. He told doctors he lay on his side for much of the time, trapped in a small void in the remains of the market.

“He’s not going to be able to walk for a while, but he should have a full recovery,” Chong said.

Doctors planned to feed Monsigrace rice on Wednesday and possibly other foods in the coming days.

“He wants to go home,” Chong said.

Another physician, Dr. Dushyantha Jayaweera, said when Monsigrace first became lucid, he claimed he had not had any water or food. The man, however, had normal kidney function with heart palpitations, suggesting he at least had drank something but not enough to avoid getting dehydrated, Jayaweera said.

The man’s story began when two men delivered the vendor to a Salvation Army medical center in Port-au-Prince on Monday, saying he had been trapped since the earthquake. Dehydrated and malnourished with rail-thin legs, Monsigrace was later moved to the University of Miami hospital because of his critical condition. The man’s mother, who was at the field hospital, told workers that people clearing rubble downtown found him and alerted his brothers.

Came in delirious

“He came in delirious, asking to die,” said Nery Ynclan, a University of Miami media officer in Haiti, noting that Creole translators were at the field hospital.

Video shot by Michael Andrew, an Arizona-based freelance photographer and a volunteer at the Salvation Army medical center, shows doctors trying without success to insert a needle into Monsigrace’s arm to give him fluid on Monday. Doctors then referred him to the field hospital at the airport, Andrew said.

The Salvation Army, in a brief posting on its Web site, said the two men, whom it didn’t identify, found Monsigrace in the debris of the market Monday. But Andrew said Tuesday that it wasn’t clear whether others had given him food and water, and that other details were unknown.

It also wasn’t clear why teams of international search and rescue workers were not alerted to Monsigrace’s presence in the wrecked market.