PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - A Haitian judge has decided to release 10 U.S. missionaries accused of kidnapping 33 children and trying to spirit them out of the earthquake- stricken country, a judicial source said on Wednesday.
The source said the missionaries, who have been in jail since they were stopped at Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic on January 29, could be released as early as Thursday.
"The order will be to release them," the source, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. The decision has not yet been made public.
"One thing an investigating judge seeks in a criminal investigation is criminal intentions on the part of the people involved and there is nothing that shows that criminal intention on the part of the Americans," the source said.
The missionaries, most of whom belong to an Idaho-based Baptist church, were arrested trying to take the children across the border to the Dominican Republic 17 days after a magnitude 7 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
The five men and five women have denied any intentional wrongdoing and said they were only trying to help orphans left destitute by the quake, which shattered the Haitian capital and left more than 1 million homeless. But evidence has come to light showing most of the children still had living parents.
As part of Haiti's legal requirements, investigating Judge Bernard Sainvil must send a notice of his decision to the prosecutor. That will be done on Thursday, the source said.
Once he receives the order, the prosecutor could offer an opinion that one or more of the Americans should be held but that would have no legal effect on the judge's decision, the source said.
The case has been a distraction to the Haitian government as it tries to cope with the aftermath of the earthquake and was diplomatically sensitive for the United States as it spearheads a massive international effort to feed and shelter Haitian quake survivors.
Haiti's beleaguered government had warned that unscrupulous traffickers could try to take advantage of the chaos that followed the quake by taking away vulnerable children, and it tightened adoption procedures.
Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Eric Walsh