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Venezuelan judge orders Utah man be tried on weapons charges

(Rick Bowmer, AP Photo, File)


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CARACAS, Venezuela — A judge in Venezuela has ordered a Utah man to stand trial on weapons charges, a move that "devastated" his mother and dashed hopes that he would be released and home for Christmas.

Tuesday's ruling in a preliminary hearing came almost 18 months after Joshua Holt of Riverton was arrested and a day after his mother issued a plea that her ailing son be allowed to get treatment at a hospital.

Holt, 25, was jailed in June 2016 after he traveled to the South American nation to marry a woman he met through online Spanish lessons. He sought to secure visas for his wife and her children. He was arrested at her family's apartment by police who alleged he was stockpiling weapons. Holt's wife, Theresa Calena, also was arrested and was being held separately in Caracas.

Judge Ana Maria Gamuza's ruling formally charges both.

"I'm totally devastated. I don't even know what to think" Laurie Holt told The Associated Press. "I can't understand how they can send a young kid who's completely innocent to trial and feel good about that."

She also expressed anger the judge denied a U.S. official access to the courtroom.

Lee McClenny, the head of the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela, was forced Tuesday to wait outside the courtroom for hours after the judge refused to grant him access to the proceedings in apparent violation of the Vienna convention on consular rights.

Laurie Holt said her son had requested McClenny be present for the hearing as detained foreign nationals are entitled to under the treaty, to which Venezuela is a party.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has met with the Holt family and worked with the both the Obama and Trump administrations to try and gain Holt's release, said in a statement Tuesday "we will not give up."

“As we keep Josh and his family in our prayers, I've called on the president, vice president, State Department and our U.N. delegation to redouble our efforts to bring Josh home," Hatch said. "I've had my staff working to explore new avenues to work with the Venezuelan government and their neighbors to secure Josh's release on humanitarian grounds.”

The ruling comes a day after Laurie Holt released an audio recording of her son complaining of being in failing health.

A judge in Venezuela issued a court order approving Josh Holt's hospitalization two weeks ago as an intestinal bacterial infection worsened, Laurie Holt said Monday, but top Venezuelan officials have directed prison officers to ignore the order.

In a roughly 30-second recording his family released, Holt is heard speaking in a weak voice, saying his stomach is upset and he doesn't know what to do. Laurie Holt said her son sent the message Monday morning, about a month after he fell sick with the infection.

"Guys, I don't feel very good. I've been throwing up all night and diarrhea all night. I'm very dizzy and I can't think. And my stomach hurts super bad," Holt says in the recording. His voice catching, he continues, "I really don't know what to do. I've never felt like this before."

Alarmed by the recording, the State Department on Tuesday reiterated its call for Holt's release.

"He's in extremely poor health. We want him to be brought home," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at a press briefing.

Holt said she hasn't heard from her son since he made the distress call Monday morning and she fears his cellphone was taken away in retaliation for her decision to release the recording.

In their statement Monday, Laurie and Jason Holt said they were asking again for their son's release on humanitarian grounds because he is "in a delicate state." They urged "our leaders in the U.S. government double their efforts in bringing him home before is too late."

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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