Published November 17, 2014
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The judge who dropped kidnapping charges against Laura Silsby and nine other U.S. missionaries said Tuesday he did so because the children they were trying to take out of Haiti were all given over freely by their parents.
But Silsby, the group's leader, will be tried on a lesser charge of arranging illegal travel because she knew she had no right to take the 33 children out of earthquake-ravaged Haiti, the judge said.
Judge Bernard Saint-Vil told The Associated Press that Silsby deceived the other Baptist missionaries by telling them she had the proper documents to take the kids to the neighboring Dominican Republic.
Silsby remains jailed in Haiti and faces up to 3 years in prison if convicted. The other missionaries, most also from Idaho, were freed in February and March and allowed to leave Haiti.
Saint-Vil said Silsby's trial, to be heard by a different judge, could begin as early as next week.
Silsby acknowledged to him that she broke the law, Saint-Vil said. "She knows she didn't have the legal right to leave the country" because she spent three days after arriving Jan. 25 trying in vain to obtain the necessary documents, he said.
Officials from the Dominican Republic, where Silsby was setting up an orphanage, told her she needed adoption certificates and passports, none of which she obtained for any of the children.
But, the judge added, Silsby told the other missionaries she had all the papers needed to take the children, ages two months to 12 years, into the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
Silsby, 40, has refused AP interview requests after telling the news agency the day after her Jan. 29 arrest that all of the children she was trying to take out of the country were either orphans or were given up by distant relatives.
Her attorney, Shiller Roi, was asked by the AP on Tuesday about Saint-Vil's assertion that she deceived the fellow Baptists she enlisted in her "rescue mission."
He did not directly respond, but said: "I know only that the nine missionaries are clean, totally clean."
On Monday, the judge ordered both Silsby and Jean Sainvil, an Atlanta-based pastor born in Haiti, to stand trial on the charge of arranging illegal travel. Sainvil did not respond to a voice message left on his cell phone.
Silsby told police who detained the missionaries at the border that she got the children from an orphanage run by the pastor that had collapsed in the Jan. 12 quake, the judge said.
Saint-Vil said he found no evidence that such an orphanage ever existed. He also said he found no evidence to support the Atlanta pastor's claims that he ran several orphanages in rural Haiti.
The pastor helped Silsby collect children in Callebas, a village in the hills outside Port-au-Prince as well as in Le Citron, a poor district of the Haitian capital. Parents told the AP subsequently that they had given their children to the Americans because the missionaries promised to educate and care for the kids.
Saint-Vil was asked whether he believes Silsby intended to put the children — who have all now been returned to their parents — up for adoption.
"If she had any intention to commit a criminal act with the children we don't know," he said. "We think that maybe she had good intentions."
Child trafficking has long been a serious problem in Haiti. It had an estimated 380,000 orphans prior to the Jan. 12 quake, which the government says killed some 230,000 people and left about 1.3 million homeless.
The judge said Haiti has not requested that Sainvil be extradited from the United States but added that the decision was not up to him.
The crime of which both the pastor and Silsby have been accused, "organization of irregular trips," dates from a 1980 statute restricting travel out of Haiti signed by then-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.
Associated Press Writer Evens Sanon contributed to this report.