Back-Story on Baptist Missionaries in Haiti Gets Murkier

Jodi Jacobson

The case of the Baptist missionaries gets murkier as Haiti goes into a 3-day period of mourning and one of their lawyers is questioned for a possible role in trafficking in children.

Haitian Judge Bernard Sainvil told Reuters Thursday he had signed a request for the release of 10 Baptist missionaries from the U.S., charged with attempting to take 33 children out of the earthquake-ravaged country.

Sainvil said he sent the signed request to the prosecutor’s office.
He told Reuters earlier that once the prosecutor had given an opinion, he could issue a formal release order for the 10 missionaries, who have been in custody since they were stopped at Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic 17 days after the deadly earthquake.

The prosecutor can comment on the decision, but can’t overrule it under Haitian law.

But whether they will all be released back to the United States and under what conditions is not completely clear.  The New York Times reports that:

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The 10 Americans have been imprisoned since Jan. 29 in the back of the same police station used by President René Préval
as the seat of Haiti’s government since the earthquake. They had been
told by their lawyers that at least some of them would be on their way
home on Thursday. But the judge overseeing their case, Bernard
Saint-Vil, recommended to the prosecutor that they be tentatively
released from custody and permitted to leave the country as long as a
representative stayed behind until the case was completed.

But a State Department spokeperson told RH RealityCheck this afternoon by phone that what happens next will be up to the prosecutor, and that no action is likely to take place for the next three days in any case as Haiti is entering a period of official mourning for the hundreds of thousands killed in the earthquake. An additional briefing by the US Ambassador to Haiti is expected later this afternoon.

Whether the Baptist group will be charged if they are released back to the United States would be up to the Department of Justice.

Meanwhile, the New York Times also reports that one of the lawyers for the Baptist group may be sought in El Salvador for trafficking in women and girls.

The police in El Salvador have begun an investigation into whether a man
suspected of leading a trafficking ring involving Central American and
Caribbean women and girls is also a legal adviser to many of the
Americans charged with trying to take 33 children out of Haiti without permission.

The adviser, Jorge Puello, said in a telephone interview on Thursday
that he had not engaged in any illegal activity in El Salvador and that
he had never been in the country.

The head of
the Salvadoran border police, Commissioner Jorge Callejas, said in a
telephone interview that he was investigating accusations that a man
with a Dominican passport that identified him as Jorge Anibal Torres
Puello led a human trafficking ring that recruited Dominican women and
under-age Nicaraguan girls by offering them jobs and then putting them
to work as prostitutes in El Salvador.

But Puello called it a case of mistaken
identity. “I don’t have anything to do with El Salvador,” he said,
suggesting that his name was as common in Latin America as John Smith
is in the United States.

Puello has been acting as a spokesman and legal adviser for most of the
detainees in the Dominican Republic. The family of one of the detained
Americans obtained independent counsel as of Feb 7.

Mr. Puello said he did not
even have a passport. But shown photographs of the wanted trafficker, both Callejas and Judge Saint-Vil said Puello matched the description.

According to the Times, an Interpol arrest warrant has been issued
for someone named Jorge Anibal Torres Puello, according to the police
and public documents.  The judge said he would request assistance from the Department of Homeland Security
to look into Mr. Puello’s background. A spokesman for the department
said American officials were playing a supporting role in the
investigation surrounding the Americans, providing “investigative
support as requested.”

Puello’s law license is also in question: Records at the College of Lawyers in the Dominican
Republic listed no one with his name.  One lawyer for the families
said that Mr. Puello had told him that he was licensed to practice law
in Florida, but the lawyer said he had checked and found no such
record. Mr. Puello said in the interview that he had never said he was
licensed in Florida.

Mr. Puello said in the interview that he had
been representing the Americans free of charge because he was a
religious man who commiserated with their situation.  But other lawyers for the detainees said that the
families had wired Mr. Puello $12,000 to pay for the Americans’
transportation out of Haiti if they were released, and that they had
been told by Mr. Puello in a conference call late Tuesday that he
needed an additional $36,000. Mr. Puello said that he had not
participated in a conference call.

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