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
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 Thursday, 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.
Drew Ham, assistant pastor at Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, said Thursday that the judge's recommendation is encouraging but it's too soon to celebrate with the detainees still in custody.
"It's a good sign," Ham told the AP. "But we still don't have confirmation of their release."
On Wednesday, from behind cell bars in the stuffy, grimy jail where they have been held, the missionaries refused to be interviewed.
"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.