UPDATE 2-US missionaries still held in Haiti to be freed

Tue Feb 23, 2010 4:55pm EST

Related Topics

* No evidence of wrongdoing, judge says

* Release likely this week but no exact timetable

* Final chapter in a media distraction (Recasts with details, background, quote from Silsby)

By Joseph Guyler Delva

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Two U.S. missionaries still held in Haiti on child kidnapping charges are expected to be freed this week, the judge hearing their case said on Tuesday.

"We haven't found anything that could suggest wrongdoing on the part of the Americans," the investigative judge, Bernard Sainvil, told Reuters.

"I think they could be released this week," he added.

"The case will be over this week because we have no criminal grounds to pursue it," said Sainvil, who spoke after questioning the two Americans, Laura Silsby and Charisa Coulter, in a Port-au-Prince courtroom.

Ten Americans, most of whom are members of a Baptist church in Idaho, were arrested last month on charges that they tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the country without proper documentation after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti.

Eight were released Wednesday, but Silsby, the group leader, and Coulter, her assistant, were held in detention for further questioning.

"Thank you for helping to reveal the truth," Silsby told the judge, as she was escorted out of the courtroom.

"I hope we will be released because we did nothing wrong," she said moments later, before she was bundled off back to her jail cell.

Silsby and other members of the group of missionaries have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, saying they only wanted to help orphans left destitute by the quake.

But they had no Haitian identity or exit papers for the children. Many had living parents who acknowledged turning the children over to the missionaries in the belief they would have better care in the hands of the Americans.

The Americans were arrested on Jan. 29, 17 days after the magnitude 7 earthquake that took what Haitian President Rene Preval now estimates to be around 300,000 lives.

After the quake, the Haitian government warned that child traffickers could take advantage of the ensuing chaos to prey on vulnerable children.

But the case involving Silsby and her colleagues proved to be little more than a media distraction at a time when Haitian authorities and foreign aid groups are working to feed and care for hundreds of thousands of homeless quake victims sheltering in makeshift camps scattered across the ruined capital Port-au-Prince.

In his comments to Reuters, Sainvil, who visited the neighboring Dominican Republic as part of his investigation into Silsby and Coulter, said the pair would be freed as soon as he could process the necessary paperwork.

He gave no further details but said no further hearings would be held in the case. (Reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva; Editing by Tom Brown and Stacey Joyce)

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