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Trump again calls for release of Utahn held in Venezuelan prison



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SALT LAKE CITY — The Trump administration again called for the release of a Utah man imprisoned in Venezuela in a new round of financial sanctions on the South American country.

"The United States is very concerned about the situation of Joshua Holt, a young American being detained illegally by the (President Nicolas) Maduro regime for over a year now. We once again call for his immediate release on humanitarian grounds," according to an executive order President Donald Trump signed Friday.

Trump called for Holt's release last month while considering the latest sanctions against Venezuela.

Holt, a 25-year-old former LDS Church missionary, traveled to Venezuela to marry a woman he met online while looking for Spanish-speaking Mormons to help him improve his Spanish.

Venezuelan officials allege he was using his wife's apartment to stockpile weapons and have suggested his case is linked to other unspecified attempts by the U.S. government to undermine Maduro's socialist rule amid deep economic and political turbulence.

In a letter from jail, Holt said the assault rifle and a grenade found in his wife's apartment were planted when he refused to pay police a bribe during a routine raid in the government-built housing complex where he was staying with his wife and her son.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who has been working to free Holt, lauded Trump's renewed call for the Riverton man's release on Twitter, and asked followers Friday to retweet his posts.

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"We need your help more than ever to spread the word about Josh and help pressure those who are holding him," Hatch tweeted.

Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, also welcomed the sanctions. Love said she has stood with Holt's mother, Laurie Holt, many times over the past year to put pressure on the government to intercede.

"Our office has relentlessly appealed to the previous and current president to make Josh's release a priority, and finally the president has responded," she said in a statement.

"It is past time for the United States to get serious about the situation in Venezuela, and these sanctions show that the United States won't stand by as Venezuela holds innocent U.S. citizens captive," Love said.

The U.S. House passed a resolution last year calling for the release of Holt and other political prisoners in Venezuela. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry raised Holt's jailing during a meeting with Maduro last September, and a senior State Department official traveled to Caracas twice in part to push for his release.

In February, the Trump administration imposed sanctions against Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of playing a major role in international drug trafficking.

The Associated Press reported then that a former Obama administration official said the decision to sanction El Aissami was held up last year, at the insistence of the State Department, for fear it could interfere in a Vatican-backed attempt at talks between the government and opposition, as well as efforts to win Holt's release.

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Dennis Romboy

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