State Department Demands ‘Humanitarian’ Release of American Prisoner in Venezuela

The Associated Press
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

The State Department called on the socialist regime in Venezuela to release Joshua Holt on Tuesday, a 25-year-old U.S. citizen whose health has deteriorated considerably in the year and a half that he has spent behind bars on highly suspicious charges of weapons stockpiling.

“The United States calls on the Government of Venezuela to release on humanitarian grounds U.S. citizen Josh Holt, who’s been detained in Venezuela since June 30th, 2016, almost a year and a half now,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters on Thursday.

“Throughout his 17 months in detention, so far without charges, we’ve raised our concerns about Mr. Holt’s case, his condition, and his treatment at every opportunity,” Nauert continued. “We remain extremely concerned for his health and his well-being. The decline in his health has been further exacerbated by the Venezuelan authorities’ delays in providing necessary medical treatment. Sometimes they have blocked his care altogether.”

She concluded with a call for Holt’s “immediate release.”

Holt was arrested in June 2016 after traveling to Venezuela to marry Thamara Caleño, who he had met on the internet. Police detained both after raiding their home and claiming to find a firearm and a grenade. Then-Venezuelan Interior Minister Gustavo Gonzalez accused Holt of being a “trained gunman” acting in concert with a larger American conspiracy to end the tenure of dictator Nicolás Maduro. Maduro regularly accuses the United States of “coup” attempts against his regime, without evidence.

Witnesses have told media that they saw police enter the couple’s home with weapons, plant them there, then re-enter and claim to find them. Holt, his family says, has said that police demanded a $10,000 bribe before arresting him, which he could not pay. The couple has not had the opportunity to defend itself in court, as the Venezuelan government has.

During his time in prison, Holt’s mother, Laurie, says that his son has been forced to undergo extreme inhumane treatment, including being forced to strip naked and jump up and down for the amusement of his prison guards. Holt’s attorney has argued that this particular torture was a violation of Holt’s right to religious freedom given that, as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he wears particular undergarments that his religion forbids him from removing in front of strangers.

Attorney Jeannette Prieto has also accused the government of not providing any evidence linking Holt and Caleño to the weapons in question. “They don’t have a single fingerprint from the arms that match those of my client,” she told NPR in March.

The Holt family accused the Obama administration on multiple occasions of not doing enough to rescue their son. “I haven’t heard from anybody as far as the State Department, anybody in Washington, the White House, no one, and I’ve written numerous letters, emails.” Laurie Holt told reporters in August 2016. “I just need them to work harder than what they’re doing.”

In a Washington Post column published in November, Laurie and Holt’s father, Jason, condemned the “byzantine bureaucracy of the U.S. government” for leaving families of those imprisoned abroad stranded.

“The families who have the most access and most success with our own government are those who understand how to work the system,” they wrote, adding that the Obama administration had told them that their options for helping free Holt were limited “because a foreign government and not a terrorist group holds our son.”

In June 2017, an unnamed Trump administration official told the Miami Herald that President Donald Trump had taken a “personal interest” in the Holt case. Trump has prioritized the negotiated release of American citizens imprisoned abroad and has successfully negotiated the release of Americans around the world. Among the Americans returning home in the past year are humanitarian aid worker Aya Hijazi, imprisoned in Egypt; three UCLA basketball players imprisoned on shoplifting accusations in China; and American businesswoman Sandy Phan-Gillis, who China “deported” after two years behind bars for “espionage.”

The Trump administration also secured the release on humanitarian grounds of 22-year-old North Korean hostage Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after arriving in his native Ohio.

“[Warmbier’s release] means that the administration is working hard on these cases,” Laurie Holt told Fox News at the time. “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 has also expressed fear that the Venezuelan government could lead her son to a fate similar to Warmbier’s. “It gives me great anxiety that something like that happens to Josh and I don’t get him home alive,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “That is my biggest fear.”

Holt has also said her son has expressed that he feels “no hope whatsoever that he will ever be free from there” and is “very depressed and angry.” He has told his family in letters to “forget about him,” Laurie Holt said in June.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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