PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A Haitian judge said Monday he has dismissed kidnapping and criminal association charges against 10 American missionaries detained for trying to take a busload of children out of the country after the Jan. 12 earthquake.
Judge Bernard Saint-Vil said Laura Silsby, the last of the 10 missionaries jailed in Haiti, still faced a lesser charge for allegedly organizing the effort to transport the 33 children to an orphanage they were setting up in the Dominican Republic.
Silsby faces up to three years in prison if convicted on the remaining charge, the "organization of irregular trips," from a 1980 statute restricting travel out of Haiti signed by then-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.
Silsby declined comment from her jail cell. Shiller Roi, a lawyer for Silsby, declined comment, saying he hadn't yet received the judge's written decision.
The judge told The Associated Press that the charge of organizing the trip was also pending against Jean Sainvil, a Haitian-born pastor from Atlanta who also helped organize the venture. Sainvil did not immediately respond to message left on his voicemail.
The judge, who spoke to AP in a brief phone interview, did not explain the reasons for his decisions.
It was the latest development in a case that emerged amid the chaos following the devastating earthquake, which the government said killed an estimated 230,000 people and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
Border guards detained the Americans on Jan. 29 as they tried to enter the Dominican Republic from Haiti without the required documents for the children.
A relative of two members of the group of Baptists said at the time that they intended to take the children, all of whom still had at least one living parent, to an orphanage they were setting up in the Dominican Republic for Haitian children.
On Feb. 17, the judge released eight of the Americans after concluding that parents voluntarily gave up their children in the belief that the Americans would give them a better life. He freed the ninth March 8, leaving only Silsby in custody.
Supporters of the group said they were only trying to help the children and simply misunderstood Haitian adoption rules intended to prevent child trafficking following the earthquake.
Lawyers for some of the former detainees welcomed the judge's decision.
Caleb Stegall, an attorney in Perry, Kansas, who represents four of the missionaries, said he had expected the charges to be dropped once his clients were allowed to leave Haiti. Still, he said, "They can have some closure."
Hiram Sasser, lawyer for former detainee Jim Allen of Amarillo, Texas, said Allen's family and friends were grateful.
"Obviously, we think it's great," said Sasser, a lawyer with the Liberty Institute, a non-profit religious rights activist group based in Plano, Texas.
Child trafficking has long been a serious problem in Haiti.
In a separate case Monday, three suspected Haitian traffickers were caught driving 24 children in the town of Mirebalais. The group was traveling with the children's birth certificates, suggesting they meant to put them up for adoption, local judge Vicran Charles said.
The judge said the suspects said they were taking the children to a woman who runs an orphanage in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and promised the children a better life.
The children, who were placed in a nearby orphanage, range in age from 1 to 13. None appeared to be orphans.
"I have a mom and a dad," said 8-year-old Jolen Plaisir. "They didn't tell me why they were sending me to an orphanage."
Associated Press writers John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, and Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas, contributed to this report.