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Family of Utahn imprisoned in Venezuela says hope is not gone

Josh Holt and Thamy CaleÑo got engaged in May. Holt went to Venezuela, where his fiancÉ lives, to get married last month. According to a local news article published June 30, 2016, they were arrested, accused of being U.S. spies.
Josh Holt and Thamy CaleÑo got engaged in May. Holt went to Venezuela, where his fiancÉ lives, to get married last month. According to a local news article published June 30, 2016, they were arrested, accused of being U.S. spies.
Family photo

RIVERTON — It's been almost four months since Riverton resident Josh Holt was arrested and placed in a Venezuelan prison. His family says he is a political pawn and is innocent.

On Tuesday, there were significant movements along the path to Holt's release.

The family said they received word from what they called "trustworthy and reliable sources" that their son would be released Tuesday. However, they later learned that was not going to happen.

"We get our hopes up, and then it comes crashing down," said Holt's mother, Laurie Holt.

Late Monday, Venezuela’s opposition alliance reported five political prisoners were released.

"We were really hoping that Josh was one of them," Laurie Holt said. "He wasn't. I guess we just kind of had hope that this was going to be the one."

Josh Holt has been behind bars in Venezuela since June 30 after authorities contend he was stockpiling weapons in his new wife's apartment in Caracas. He had recently married Theresa Caleno after the two met online and connected because of his desire to improve his Spanish skills.

Tom Shannon, undersecretary for political affairs with the U.S. State Department, met with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Monday and specifically asked for Josh Holt's release. Secretary of State John Kerry also previously addressed the Utah man's situation with Maduro.

In a news briefing Wednesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby addressed Shannon's meeting with Maduro and said the department is continuing "to call for respect for due process and human rights."

"We wouldn’t raise our concerns about due process if we didn’t feel they were warranted" in Josh Holt's case, Kirby said.

Laurie and Jason Holt, however, wrote an opinion piece published Wednesday in the Washington Post that criticized the U.S. government's efforts to release their son.

"To the extent we have had access to senior U.S. officials, it is because we have sought them out ourselves. … We have learned how to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy of the U.S. government, which involves many unanswered calls and — when we do get someone on the phone — unanswered questions," the couple wrote.

The opinion piece also says Josh Holt has undergone inhumane treatment while in custody.

"(Prison authorities) recently forced him to undress and respond to humiliating commands while naked, violating Josh’s (LDS) religious beliefs and practices," the Holts wrote.

The poor conditions have created an excruciating dilemma for the couple as they deliberate on how much they should publicize their concerns.

"We are afraid to speak out because we don’t know what horrors it will bring for Josh," the opinion piece states. "And yet to not speak out carries its own punishment, for it is only through public pressure that we’ve been able to get our government’s attention."

In a positive development, Laurie Holt said they've discovered a new and surprising ally in the fight for their son.

"The Vatican is there," Laurie Holt said, adding that the family's lawyer told them a Vatican representative is petitioning on behalf of political prisoners and trying to reach a resolution.

"We just need (President Maduro) to let Josh come home," she said.

Now, the mother is making a plea from nearly 4,000 miles away to the nation's president. She wrote a letter directly to Maduro that was published in media outlets nationwide Tuesday.

"My heart has become torn from me," Laurie Holt read from the letter. "I literally shake all the time. I miss his smile and loving embrace."

Josh Holt is scheduled to appear in a Venezuelan court next Tuesday. However, a judge has failed to show up for two prior court dates.

The family is worried time is running out because the courts are scheduled to close soon for the holidays and won't reopen until January.

Contributing: Ben Lockhart

Email: akewish@deseretnews.com