Married in Venezuela, U.S. man, wife accused of being spies
For almost a year, Joshua Holt, a 25-year-old former Mormon missionary from Utah, has been languishing in a Caracas prison hoping to have his day in court.
He was arrested on June 30, 2016, on charges of hiding two automatic rifles and a hand grenade at the home he was sharing with his new bride, Thamara Caleño, and her children. Holt’s lawyers and family say he’s innocent. And an eyewitness to his arrest says he was framed — that the weapons, which are illegal to possess in Venezuela, were planted by police.
“We’re convinced that Josh and Thamara are innocent,” said his lawyer, Carlos Gómez. “And if we go before an impartial court, we’re sure they will be released.”
But in Venezuela’s polarized and chaotic legal system, it’s unclear when Holt will get the chance to defend himself. The courtroom his case has been assigned to hasn’t had a judge since December, so he’s never had his second pretrial hearing. In addition, waves of anti-government protests that have left almost 70 dead have paralyzed the administration amid escalating violence.
Holt’s lawyers say he’s being treated well in the Helicoide — a detention facility in Caracas usually reserved for people facing political crimes. But Josh’s family and others say his health and psyche are deteriorating amid the doubt and prolonged detention.
“He’s very depressed and angry,” his mother, Laurie Holt, said in a telephone interview this week from Riverton, Utah. “He has no hope whatsoever that he will ever be free from there.”
In letters that Josh sends through his Venezuelan mother-in-law, he has told his family to “move on” and “forget about him.” His mother said he’s shed more than 50 pounds and lost much of his hair due to the stress and poor food.
Kevin Brosnahan, a spokesperson with the Bureau of Consular Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, said the agency is concerned about the continued postponement and rescheduling of Holt’s hearings.
“Through formal discussions, dozens of diplomatic notes, and public statements, we have repeatedly raised concerns, about his health, the conditions of his detention and his treatment with Venezuelan authorities,” Brosnahan said. “We again call on the Venezuelan government to immediately release Joshua Holt on humanitarian grounds.”
Holt is one of 11 Americans detained in Venezuela, but his case has drawn attention at the highest levels.
President Donald Trump has taken a “personal interest” in the case and is “tracking [it] closely in partnership with the interested parties in Congress,” an official with the National Security Council said in an email. “We are all hopeful we will welcome Josh home soon.”
But even as the White House is focused on Holt’s plight, it’s unclear how much leverage the Trump administration might have over the socialist administration in Caracas.
The two nations haven’t exchanged ambassadors since 2010, and President Nicolás Maduro routinely accuses Washington of supporting shadowy coup plots and violent protests.
The United States, in turn, has been ratcheting up pressure. Last month, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on eight Venezuelan Supreme Court judges — freezing their assets and banning them from travel to the United States — as punishment for stripping the Venezuelan Congress of all powers earlier this year, a decision the court later reversed amid a widespread international outcry.
It was in the context of these simmering tensions that Holt traveled to Caracas last year to marry Caleño, a fellow Mormon he had met online. The newlyweds were staying at Caleño’s apartment waiting to get U.S. visas for her and her two children, when police began conducting house-to-house searches.
An eyewitness to the events told the Miami Herald last year that the police became irritated that Holt was recording them on his mobile phone. A few hours later, the witness claims, the police returned, planted weapons in the apartment and arrested the couple.
According to news reports at the time, police recovered an AK-47, an “imitation” M-15 assault rifle and a hand grenade. The couple were initially accused of terrorism and espionage, but those charges were eventually dropped.
The prosecutor’s office did not return phone calls seeking comment, but Holt’s lawyer says officials there have assured him that this case isn’t being politicized. Even so, the endless and unnecessary delays, and the fact that Holt and Caleño are being detained by the Bolivarian Intelligence Service, or SEBIN, rather than police, suggests otherwise, he said.
The lawyers are petitioning to have the case moved to a fully staffed courtroom, but they’ve been given no assurances that will happen.
Holt’s mother said she’s been monitoring the daily protests in Caracas and wondering if the Maduro government might fall. Among the protesters’ demands are the release of all political prisoners.
She just hopes her son is released before it’s too late.
“He has lost an awful lot of weight,” Laurie Holt said, fighting back tears. “If we don’t get him home sooner than later, we might not get him home at all.”
Follow Jim Wyss on Twitter @jimwyss