WASHINGTON (BP)–Dire circumstances facing 10 U.S. Baptists detained in Haiti continue to unfold sporadically in media reports, including news that the five men and five women were split up Feb. 5, with the men going to the national penitentiary and the women to a women’s jail.
The Idaho Statesman reported Feb. 6 that “conditions in the jails are precarious as a result of the earthquake, and the Idahoans have a lot of mosquito bites to show for their stay so far.”
The detainees, who were charged with child kidnapping and criminal association after trying to transport 33 children from Haiti to a makeshift orphanage in the Dominican Republic, also aren’t able to contact their families because there are no telephones in jail, the newspaper said.
Jorge Puello, the group’s attorney in the Dominican Republic, told NBC on Sunday that he is concerned about the detainees’ health. “They’re sleeping on the floor,” he said. “There’s no ventilation.”
Edwin Coq, who served as their attorney in Haiti, requested a provisional release for the detainees pending their trial, but the judge said he needed more time to review the case. He was scheduled to hear testimony from the Americans Feb. 8 and possibly release an opinion two days later.
The Americans are considered guilty under Haitian law, which operates under the Napoleonic Code, unlike in the United States where a person is considered innocent until proven guilty, the Statesman reported.
Coq was fired over the weekend by Puello after the Haitian lawyer asked the families of the detainees for $60,000, which he said was his fee for working on their behalf. Puello accused Coq of being involved in “some kind of extortion” with the Haitian government that would have led to the release of nine of the detainees, according to The Telegraph in London.
Also circulating are reports that eight of the detainees signed a note that was passed to an NBC producer on Saturday while a reporter was speaking with Laura Silsby, who has been a spokeswoman for the American volunteers.
“Please you must listen. We have no way to call. Court will not let us have a say with anything about trust for us. We only came as volunteers. We had nothing to do with any documents and have been lied to,” the note said.
In the note, the detainees also indicated they believe Silsby is attempting to control the situation and they fear for their lives. Besides Silsby, the other detainee who did not sign the note was her children’s nanny, Charisa Coulter.
Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho, where several of the detainees are members, held a press conference Sunday afternoon but did not address the note that had been given to NBC.
A statement posted Feb. 7 on the church’s website appeared to be the text of the pastor’s remarks to reporters.
“Being able to come together for prayer and fellowship has been a means for helping our church cope with the current situation. Though we do not know exactly what transpired down in Haiti, we know we care for those who find themselves in an hour of need,” pastor Clint Henry said. “We will continue to pray around the clock not only for the safety of our people, but for a quick resolution. We will continue to encourage family members who sometimes feel helpless. And we will continue to ask for the help of our government.”
Henry added that the trial has led him to tears and caused him to discover that his faith in Jesus Christ is “just as real now as it was before.”
Meanwhile, reports continue to surface relating to Silsby and whether she knew she was leading the group in an illegal effort. CNN reported that three interpreters who worked with the group said the Americans met with a Haitian police officer and a Dominican Republic official before they attempted the transport that led to their arrest.
The Dominican consul general told CNN he warned Silsby that she could be charged with child trafficking if she attempted the trip without proper documentation. The interpreters also said they translated conversations between Silsby and the parents of children she took, so she knew they were not orphans.
A report by The Canadian Press indicated that when Puello, the Dominican attorney, was asked if Silsby deceived the other nine Baptists by assuring them that she had the proper papers, Puello responded, “I believe that is true.”
The Wall Street Journal, after interviewing people in the village from which the children were taken, reported that family members of the children said they offered them up for a better life. Some who granted permission, though, were not their birth parents.
An article by The New York Times Feb. 5 relayed comments from family members of the detainees who say their relatives simply wanted to help in response to the devastation in Haiti and abruptly agreed to make the trip, not necessarily knowing Silsby.
The Statesman reported Feb. 4 that Silsby had a history of failing to pay debts, failing to pay her employees and failing even to follow Idaho laws. Silsby has been the subject of eight civil lawsuits and 14 unpaid wage claims, the newspaper said, and the $358,000 Meridian house at which she founded her nonprofit New Life Children’s Refuge in November was foreclosed upon in December.
A check of Silsby’s driving record revealed at least nine traffic citations since 1997, including four for failing to provide insurance or register annually, the Statesman said, and her 16-year marriage to Terry Silsby, a real estate agent, ended in divorce in January 2007, according to marriage records.
In other news, former President Bill Clinton, now a special U.N. envoy to Haiti, met with President Rene Preval in Port-au-Prince on Friday but said his visit had nothing to do with the detained Americans. Later, Clinton said the U.S. and Haitian governments should try to resolve the issue quickly.
“I think what’s important now is that the government of Haiti and the government of the United States to get together and go through this because the government of Haiti, as I understand it, is not looking for a fight. They just want to protect children,” Clinton said during a visit to an AIDS clinic.
And during a press briefing Friday in Washington, assistant secretary of state P.J. Crowley said the United States still has not had discussions with Haitian officials about shifting prosecution to the United States.
“This is a Haitian legal process. Obviously, the 10 American citizens have been charged under Haitian law. The legal process will continue in the coming weeks. We are monitoring this process closely,” Crowley said.
Commenting on the legitimacy of the charges, Crowley said the Americans were in possession of children and were attempting to move them out of Haiti without the authorization of the Haitian government, which is a potential violation of Haitian law.
Erin Roach is a Baptist Press staff writer.