Josh Holt, a former Mormon missionary from Utah, has been held in a crowded Venezuelan jail since June, facing weapons charges in a highly politicized case that has drawn Washington’s attention. On Tuesday, he’s scheduled for a preliminary hearing that might lead to his release, his defense lawyer says.
Holt’s lawyer says she plans to prove that he had no way of obtaining the hand grenade and AK-47 assault rifle that authorities claim were in an apartment he was sharing with his Venezuelan wife, Thamara Caleño.
But two previous hearings — one in September and one in October — were canceled on short notice by the judge.
Holt’s lawyer, Jeannette Prieto, says the government needs to explain how weapons that are only available in the country to members of the Venezuelan military and national security forces ended up in Holt’s possession.
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The government’s suggestion that he traveled with the weapons makes no sense, Prieto said, since he would have had to clear customs in the United States and Venezuela.
“They have no way of casting any doubt on his innocence,” she said of the prosecution. “They have no concrete evidence.”
Prieto said she will argue that the weapons were “simply planted.”
Holt, a 24-year-old former Mormon missionary, had learned Spanish while volunteering with immigrants in Washington State and met Caleño, also a Mormon, online.
He traveled to Caracas earlier this year with the sole purpose of marrying her and taking her and her two daughters back to the U.S. with him, his parents and defense said. The couple were waiting for U.S. visas to clear when the apartment where they were staying was searched.
Police claim they found the assault rifle and grenade, but eyewitnesses told the Miami Herald they saw the police plant a bag with the weapons in it.
Initially, authorities suggested that Holt was part of a larger plot to destabilize the socialist administration and had reportedly considered terrorism charges. Now the only charge he is facing is for illegal possession of “weapons of war.” If he’s found guilty, he could face six to 10 years in prison. Caleño is also under arrest on the same charges.
Prieto said she expects the case to be dismissed Tuesday and for Holt to be exonerated. But if it does move forward, Prieto hopes Holt and Caleño will be allowed to remain free while they await trial.
Holt has had three medical scares while in custody, and Prieto said his human rights have been systematically violated. In one incident, he was forced to stand naked in a hallway and do squats, she said.
Holt is one of at least 12 U.S. citizens in Venezuelan jails but his case has generated interest at the highest levels. Last week, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon said both he and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had talked to President Nicolás Maduro about Holt’s case.
In a briefing with reporters Friday, Shannon said the U.S. was hoping for a “successful outcome” in the case, “which means his safe return to the United States.”
Holt’s trial comes during a volatile time in Venezuela, which has seen food shortages and rampant crime as the opposition agitates to oust Maduro.
It also comes as two nephews of First Lady Cilia Flores went on trial in New York on Monday on drug trafficking charges. Venezuelan authorities have said that case is politically motivated and have suggested the two men are essentially being held hostage by the U.S. government.
That has led some to speculate that the Maduro administration is using Holt as a bargaining chip in the larger Washington-Caracas tussle.
Prieto said there’s no doubt the Holt case is politically fraught.
“It’s the [Venezuelan] government that has turned this into a political case. [Holt] is a citizen that has no political background,” she said. “He came here to marry the woman he loved...And they’ve put together a legal process against him that one has to assume is intended to apply pressure. But I can’t say whether he’s being used as a pawn in a larger negotiation.”