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Americans held in Haiti say they were misled

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Divisions emerged within the group of 10 Americans jailed on child abduction charges, with eight signing a note over the weekend saying they had been misled by group leader Laura Silsby.

"Laura wants to control," read the scribbled note handed to a producer for NBC News. "We believe lying. We're afraid."

The infighting came amid a shakeup in the legal representation of the Americans, who have been charged with trying to remove 33 Haitian children from the country without government permission.

Edwin F. Coq Jr., who had been representing the group, said he stepped down in a fee dispute. But another lawyer, Jorge Puello, based in the Dominican Republic, told the Associated Press on Saturday night that he fired Coq after Coq had tried to buy the Americans' way out of jail in an extortion scheme.

In their note, the Americans, who said they came to Haiti to rescue orphans from the earthquake, complained of general malfeasance in the case but provided no details. "There is corruption, extortion," they wrote.

Denying any wrongdoing, Coq said Sunday that he had been promised $60,000 in legal fees to represent the Americans, half up front. He said he complained about not receiving the money and eventually decided to resign when the Dominican lawyer started to disparage him.

Puello had a different version, telling AP that Coq had kept increasing the amount of money he wanted and had suggested that he would use the funds to buy off judicial officials to free everyone except Silsby.

Although the details of what occurred remain uncertain, corruption is endemic in Haiti's judiciary, with one of the problems being that judges are typically paid about $500 monthly. Camille Leblanc, a former justice minister who knows Coq, described him as an honest, young lawyer but said that the $60,000 appeared large to him for such a case. "I know lawyers who would take this case for $10,000," he said.

Another legal expert, Caves Jean, a judge who handles most of the country's kidnapping cases, said he did not consider $60,000 an unusual amount for a kidnapping case. "In cases involving just one client charged with kidnapping, lawyers often charge their clients $50,000," he said. "And this case involves 10 clients."

The note signed by the group, which is affiliated with a Baptist church in Twin Falls, Idaho, made clear that they were emotionally distraught and divided. "We fear for our lives here in Haiti," said the letter, which was signed by everyone except Silsby and Charisa Coulter, Silsby's former nanny and co-founder of the group.

"We only came as volunteers," the note went on. "We had NOTHING to do with any documents and have been lied to."

Meanwhile, Buddy Shipp, 61, of Somerville, Texas, visited the Americans over the weekend to check on their medical condition, returning later with insulin for one who is a diabetic.

Though he declined to say whether the U.S. government had helped him get permission to visit the detainees, he said he was working for the American Samaritan Fellowship, a religious humanitarian organization based in Somerville.

"They are holding up okay," he said of the detainees. "They are strong people."

Americans held in Haiti say they were misled 02/07/10 [Last modified: Monday, February 8, 2010 7:11am]
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