PORT-AU-PRINCE - A Haitian judge said on Monday he would deepen his inquiry into 10 American missionaries accused of kidnapping children following media reports that a legal adviser working with them was under investigation in El Salvador for suspected human trafficking.
The questions surrounding Jorge Puello, a Dominican Republic national who was acting as adviser to the missionaries after their arrest last month following Haiti's Jan. 12 earthquake, appeared to be complicating the case against the Americans, despite initial indications they would be freed.
U.S. media reports over the weekend said El Salvador authorities were investigating whether Puello was the same person suspected of running a human trafficking ring that recruited Central American and Caribbean women and girls and forced them to work as prostitutes.
Haitian investigating judge Bernard Sainvil last week said he had agreed to defense lawyers' requests to release the 10 Americans, most of whom belong to an Idaho-based Baptist church. They have denied wrongdoing, saying they only wanted to help destitute orphans from the quake.
But Sainvil told Reuters on Monday: I will now have to deepen a little the investigation after the new developments regarding Mr. Puello.
He said he would need to check whether there was any prior connection between Puello and Laura Silsby, the leader of the U.S. group that said it had plans to shelter the Haitian children in an orphanage it was establishing in Dominican Republic.
The missionaries have been in jail since they were arrested on Jan. 29 trying to take the 33 children across the border to the Dominican Republic 17 days after the magnitude 7 earthquake that killed at least 212,000 people in Haiti. They had no Haitian identity or exit papers for the children.
The case has distracted Haitian authorities and international media at a time when foreign aid groups are struggling to feed and care for hundreds of thousands of homeless quake victims sheltering in makeshift camps scattered across the wrecked capital Port-au-Prince.
LAURA SILSBY: WE ARE INNOCENT
Silsby told Reuters on Monday she had never met Puello before a week ago.
He contacted the families (in Idaho) and the church after we were arrested ... he offered his services and he told our families he was doing that free of charge, she said.
We have been misled. We are innocent, we are not capable of what we have been accused of. Human trafficking is a heinous thing and these are the kinds of things we are against. We pray to God that He will reveal the truth, she said.
Sainvil said last week he had found no criminal intentions in the actions of the 10 and said he favoured their release.
But in line with Haitian law, the prosecutor in the case has until Thursday to give his opinion, after which Sainvil has the power to formerly order their release.
Today the Americans will sleep again in jail because I haven't received the conclusions from the prosecutor. I cannot issue any order until the case has been returned to me with the conclusions of the prosecutor, Sainvil said.
But a judicial source said on Monday the judge could choose to free eight of the group but keep Silsby and one other member, Charisa Coulter, for further questioning, as both had visited Haiti before, inquiring about orphanages.
The New York Times has quoted Puello as saying he had never been to El Salvador and never engaged in illegal activity there. He called the El Salvador investigation a case of mistaken identity.
But a Haitian lawyer for the Americans, Aviol Fleurant, said Puello had disappeared.
Mr Puello stole $30,000 that was meant to pay the (Haitian) lawyers. That man just wanted to exploit the Americans, Fleurant said.
(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Stacey Joyce)