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Courtesy of the Holt family

Venezuelan prison riot renews calls to free imprisoned Utahn

By Annie Knox, KSL | Posted - May 16th, 2018 @ 10:21pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah man who has been held in a Venezuelan prison for two years pleaded for help from Americans Wednesday and said he feared for his life as violence erupted at the prison.

A message appeared on a Facebook page Wednesday belonging to Josh Holt, 26, of Riverton, saying in part that "I am not a political pawn I am a human being a child of God and I just want to live happy with my wife and children. I have NEVER done anything wrong in my life. Please help me!!"

In a video posted on the page on Wednesday, Holt said his life is in danger.

The turmoil renewed calls from U.S. government officials and Holt's family for the imprisoned Utahn to be freed on humanitarian grounds. Holt's mother and members of Utah's congressional delegation said they had learned he was not harmed in the prison riot.

"This has never been like this ever, until now. I can say he's probably OK right now," said his mother, Laurie Holt, on Wednesday evening. But she said she wasn't certain he would remain safe.

"He hasn't had any justice whatsoever on trumped-up charges that are ridiculous," Laurie Holt said.

Venezuelan authorities have claimed Holt was keeping guns in the home of the woman he went to the country to marry in 2016. Holt denies the charges. His family has said he was in the wrong place at the wrong time of a raid in the Caracas neighborhood of his wife, Thamara Caleno, whom he met through online Spanish lessons after returning from an LDS mission.

Laurie Holt said that though she feels the U.S. government has been working hard to free her son, she still is wracked with despair. Her son's trial was scheduled to start Tuesday but he wasn't brought to court for the hearing, she said.

Venezuelan news media reported that political prisoners in the same facility as Holt are demanding an end to what they called torture and mistreatment of detainees, saying some inmates are minors and others are being held even though they have not been prosecuted. In a video, Holt appears with some of the protestors, urging their release on the basis they haven't had a trial and need medical attention for unspecified health issues.

The U.S. Embassy in Venezuela said on Twitter it was concerned for Holt's safety, labeling the turmoil a riot. The embassy tweeted that Venezuela's government is responsible for the safety of prisoners and will be held accountable if something happens.

U.S. diplomat Todd Robinson told news media there that he will continue pressing for Holt's freedom but did not know what sparked the riot.

Richard Blanco, a Venezuelan lawmaker, said on Twitter some were injured during what he said was a rare development at the prison. Videos and photos apparently taken inside the prison and posted on social media show men crying out as they run down hallways, breaking a lock and bashing in an overhead light with a makeshift club. Family members gathered with others outside the prison to protest their loved ones' detention.

Tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela have risen as President Donald Trump's administration considers oil sanctions on the country ahead of Venezuela's presidential election Sunday. Several of current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's opponents were barred from running against him.

A State Department official told NBC News that the department was renewing its call for Venezuela to free Holt on humanitarian grounds and that the safety of Americans abroad is one of the department's top priorities. The official said a representative of the department last visited Holt on April 6.

In a Facebook post on Holt's profile earlier Wednesday, Holt appears to make a plea for U.S. officials to secure his release, saying he just wants to go home and be with his family. He said Venezuelan intelligence officers have told him that as long as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio talks about him, he won't be released.

"They want to kill me and paint the walls with my blood. I am a political prisoner and they won't let me free. They won't give me a true trial," the message states.

Members of Utah's congressional delegation also were working for his release.

Sen. Orrin Hatch's office in a statement Wednesday said Utah's senior senator had been speaking with Holt's family, President Donald Trump's administration and others in Venezuela, and that he remained focused on securing humanitarian release for Holt.

Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, said she also had been in touch with Holt's family and officials from the U.S. Department of State, and had learned Holt was safe. Love added that she is "extremely concerned" and called for the State Department "to quickly produce a plan of action in order to resolve this situation once and for all."

Contributing: Andrew Adams, KSL TV

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Updated: Tuesday September 25, 2018 6:37 pm