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'Totally Devastated': Bogus Charges in Venezuela Against Ailing Utah Missionary

Laurie Holt, the mother of Joshua Holt, an American jailed in Venezuela, cries during a rally at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City on July 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Venezuela is sending a Mormon missionary to trial despite pleas from his family and home state lawmakers to Nicolas Maduro’s government to let the young man go for humanitarian reasons.

Joshua Holt, 24, of Riverton, Utah, met a fellow Mormon, Thamara Caleño, 25, online and last year traveled to her home country to get married. The couple settled down in Caracas while waiting for a visa appointment for Caleño and her two young daughters to get approval to come to the United States.

Police raided her apartment on June 30, 2016, claiming they found illegal weapons and that the couple were linked to an opposition paramilitary gang. Thamara’s mother, María Caleño, told NPR that she witnessed the raid and saw police slip weapons into Holt’s luggage before declaring they found the weapons.

A witness told the Miami Herald that police were conducting door-to-door searches when they took issue with Holt filming their activities with his phone. Two hours later, she said, masked officers who may have been military intelligence came back with weapons, “found” the weapons and arrested Holt’s wife as well. Both are now charged after being held for 18 months.

Holt’s family is calling for a day of prayer and fasting on Sunday in support of Josh.

On a Facebook page calling for his release, the family posted audio of a phone message in which Holt says his health is poor.

“I don’t feel very good,” he said, describing gastrointestinal problems. “I’m very dizzy and I can’t think. My stomach hurts… and I don’t know what to do.”

Holt’s mother, Laurie, said Monday that Venezuelan officials have “disregarded the court order approving his transport to a medical facility to receive proper medical care, and the prison’s directors under the instructions of high government officials have continuously denied him the transfer to such a facility.”

After her son was charged this week, she told the Associated Press she was “totally devastated.”

“I don’t even know what to think,” Laurie Holt said. “I can’t understand how they can send a young kid who’s completely innocent to trial and feel good about that.”

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said U.S. Embassy personnel were not permitted to observe Holt’s hearing on Tuesday.

“The United States remains extremely concerned for Mr. Holt’s health and welfare, which continues to deteriorate under the custody of SEBIN, the Venezuelan intelligence agency. The Embassy has repeatedly requested consular access pursuant to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Venezuela is legally obligated in accordance with the Convention to permit U.S. consular officers to visit U.S. citizens detained there,” Nauert said in a statement today. “Too often, access is only belatedly granted, only to be canceled, withdrawn, or simply ignored, as was the case on December 12.”

“We call on the Venezuelan government to grant immediate consular access to Mr. Holt. We remind the Venezuelan government that pursuant to its international obligations, Venezuela must grant Mr. Holt fair trial guarantees,” she added. “His life should not be jeopardized under SEBIN’s custody. Therefore we renew our call for Mr. Holt’s immediate release on humanitarian grounds.”

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on Fox News this evening slammed the “phony charge” levied against Holt by the Venezuelan regime.

“He’s a very fine young man and his parents, I know them very well. They are anguished over this like you can’t believe,” Hatch said. “But they, for their purposes, they have really given him a rough time.”

“We’ve done a lot of things to bring home, that he has not done anything wrong. And that they should let him go. We have used every possible thing that we can do to get this taken care of,” he added. “But it’s gotten into politics at this particular point. And the people in Venezuela are trying to take advantage of our country. They are mad at us, and so they will take it out on this poor young man and his new bride. It’s just really pathetic.”