MIAMI, Florida (AFP) – Eight American missionaries who were charged with child kidnapping in Haiti arrived back in the United States early Thursday after being freed by a judge in the quake-devastated nation.
Two of their number remained behind bars and were to face questioning Thursday over the case, which has overshadowed the international relief effort after more than 217,000 people were killed in the January 12 quake.
The eight Americans checked in to the Miami International Airport hotel after arriving in the Florida city from Haiti around midnight.
"The eight of them are here. They were brought by the police," a source at the hotel told AFP.
A Haitian judge freed the missionaries without bail on Wednesday -- though the charges were not dropped -- and they were whisked to the airport in a van bearing diplomatic plates to board a US military transport plane for Miami.
The American Baptist missionaries from the New Life Children's Refuge were arrested on January 29 trying to take a busload of 33 children across the border to the Dominican Republic without authorization.
They at first presented the children as quake orphans but it quickly emerged that many of the children still had parents alive.
Parents of the children told reporters they had willingly handed their children over, after being told they would be taken to a school in the Dominican Republic.
The missionaries said they only wanted to help, but the case emerged after child protection agencies and humanitarian groups warned that Haiti's post-quake chaos was fertile ground for human traffickers and those wanting to exploit children.
The emotionally-charged case drew the attention of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and hindered relief efforts.
Haitian Secretary of State for Public Security Claudy Gassant delivered the release order to the Americans while they stood behind bars.
Judge Bernard Saint-Vil allowed them to leave the country without bail, according to their lawyer Aviol Fleurant.
The missionaries' leader Laura Silsby and Charisa Coulter remained in detention in Port-au-Prince because Saint-Vil wants to determine their motives for a trip to Haiti before the quake during which they visited an orphanage in the country's north, Fleurant said.
He earlier told AFP that Coulter was being treated for an unspecified illness in jail. She is reportedly a diabetic.
Relatives of the freed missionaries expressed relief.
"It's been awful but we entrusted in God that it would happen," Phyllis Allison, the mother of group member Jim Allen, told CNN.
Allen's Haitian lawyer, Louis Gary Lissade, a former Haitian justice minister, expressed confidence that the charges would be dropped.
Gassant stressed that the charges remain and the eight should be prepared to return to Haiti as the investigation continues.
"The release such as the one today is not a definitive decision. They should remain available for presentation before the judge," he said.
Fleurant earlier expressed concern that judge Saint-Vil may want to question his clients to determine their relationship with their former legal adviser, Jorge Puello.
Police in El Salvador are investigating Puello for alleged involvement in a sex trafficking ring, although he has denied the allegations.
Puello says he had no contact with the Americans prior to their arrest.