BOISE, Idaho (ABP) – Unless new charges are filed against her, the last of 10 Southern Baptist mission volunteers jailed in Haiti on suspicion of child kidnapping will have to be released, according to an expert on Haiti's legal system.
The Haitian judge overseeing the case involving the mission team composed mostly of members from two Idaho Southern Baptist congregations released the ninth team member, 24-year-old Charisa Coulter, on March 8.
Eight other team members arrested Jan. 29 while trying to take a busload of children rescued from Haiti's earthquake zone into the Dominican Republic without proper documents were set free Feb. 17. That was after it was determined that parents voluntarily gave up the 33 children for relocation to a temporary orphanage in a former hotel away from the chaos of the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the area surrounding Haiti's capital.
Coulter, a diabetic who suffered a medical episode shortly after the group's arrest, continued to be held apparently because of her close ties to New Life Children's Refuge, a non-profit organization that sponsored the ill-fated "Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission" along with Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho.
According to the Associated Press, Haitian Judge Bernard Saint-Vil told reporters after releasing Coulter that he was holding the remaining detainee, team leader Laura Silsby, to investigate what he viewed as inconsistencies in her testimony.
Silsby, Coulter and three other volunteers are members of Central Valley, the state's largest Southern Baptist congregation, which has a strong tradition of mission support. Three others, including Paul Thompson, the church's 43-year-old pastor, are from Eastside Baptist Church in Twin Falls, Idaho.
The remaining two volunteers – friends and relatives of other team members – are from Baptist churches in Topeka, Kan., and Amarillo, Texas. Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention said the group acted independently and was not part of any organized disaster response coordinated by the state or national conventions.
Mayra Joli of Coral Gables, Fla., told the Idaho Statesman that under Haiti's legal system influenced by the Napoleonic Code, it would be unconstitutional for Silsby to be held on the same charges after all others have been released. Joli, who is licensed to practice law both in the United States and the Dominican Republic, said new charges would have to be filed in order to allow Silsby to be detained much longer.
Joli said if Haiti asked for any of the Baptists who have already been released to be returned, they would have to ask the United States government to extradite them back to the jurisdiction of the Haitian courts. Lacking any concrete evidence that the Americans were seeking to harm and not help the children, the legal expert said that is highly unlikely.
The attorney said the nine individuals set free so far were not convicted of any crime in Haiti and would be able return to the country in the future if they so desire.
–Bob Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.