The mother of an American man wrongfully imprisoned in Venezuela says she is hopeful the Trump administration may soon secure the release of her son after the return of 22-year-old student Otto Warmbier to the United States this week from North Korea.
“[Warmbier’s release] means that the administration is working hard on these cases,” Laurie Holt told Fox News. “Anything they can do to further the process along would be great because if we don’t get him out soon, I don’t think we’ll see him alive again.”
Holt’s comments come after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that North Korean authorities had released Warmbier, despite having sentenced the student to 15 years of hard labor for “hostile acts” after stealing pro-government propaganda signs from his hotel.
Warmbier had reportedly fallen into a coma in March 2016, shortly after his arrest, and U.S. officials demand his release on humanitarian grounds, which Pyongyang conceded.
In a press briefing on Wednesday, Deputy White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that securing Warmbier’s release had been a “big priority for the president.”
Joshua Holt, a former Mormon missionary from Utah, was arrested in Venezuela last June along with his wife Thamara Caleño after officials claimed to have found a small weapons arsenal in their apartment. They remain imprisoned despite eyewitnesses revealing they had seen police planting the weapons beforehand.
In December, Venezuelan authorities repeatedly denied Holt’s attorney the right to see him, as prosecutors pressed charges against him and Caleño for terrorism and illegal possession of arms. According to a report from the Miami Herald earlier this week, President Donald Trump has now taken a “personal interest” in his case.
The report also noted that Holt has become “depressed and angry” in prison and “has no hope whatsoever that he will ever be free from there.” Since entering the jail, Holt’s health has significantly deteriorated, having lost 50 pounds and developing kidney stones, bronchitis, and internal bleeding, with his family claiming his life is at risk.
“The hardest part for me is that he told his mother-in-law to tell me to go on with my life and forget about him because he feels like he is never going to get out,” Laurie Holt said. “But I’m not going to do that.”
She also says her son has been routinely tortured by Venezuelan authorities, who force him to perform gym exercises naked in the prison’s hallways, which required Holt to violate Mormon practices of modesty around others.
Venezuela enjoys alliances with some of America’s most vocal enemies, including the rogue nations of North Korea and Iran, who have routinely imprisoned Americans in search of government ransoms. North Korea is currently holding three U.S. citizens following Warmbier’s release. Iran is holding at least two U.S. citizens, while a third disappeared in the country years ago.
The Trump administration has prioritized securing the release of U.S. prisoners abroad. So far, at least two such detentions have successfully concluded: American businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis, who the Chinese government accused of spying, and Aya Hijazi, an American aid worker freed from Egypt after she was cleared of child abuse and human trafficking charges.