Family grateful for Utah man’s ‘miracle’ Venezuela release

FILE - In this July 13, 2016 file photo, Laurie Holt holds a photograph of her son Joshua Holt at her home, in Riverton, Utah. At a press conference Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016, attorney Jeanette Prieto said Holt was stripped naked and made to perform exercises in a hallway. She said the mistreatment violated international treaties. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A Utah man jailed in Venezuela on weapons charges nearly two years ago was released Saturday after a U.S. senator pressed for his freedom in a surprise meeting with President Nicolas Maduro.

“We are grateful to all who participated in this miracle,” Joshua Holt’s family said in a statement.

President Donald Trump said Holt and his family were expected at the White House on Saturday evening.

“Good news about the release of the American hostage from Venezuela. … The great people of Utah will be very happy!” Trump said in a tweet.

The 26-year-old Holt traveled to Venezuela in June 2016 to marry a woman he met online while he was looking for Spanish-speaking Mormons to improve his Spanish.

His release came after Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Maduro on Friday — the outcome of months of secret, backchannel talks about Holt between one of the senator’s aides and close allies of the Venezuelan president.

Holt’s release looked unlikely a week ago, when he appeared in a clandestinely shot video railing against the Maduro government and saying his life was threatened in a prison riot. In retaliation, socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello, a powerful ally of Maduro, said on state television that Holt was the CIA’s top spy in Latin America.

It’s not clear if Holt’s release portends a thawing of relations between the two normally hostile governments. The Trump administration has threatened crippling oil sanctions on Venezuela for Maduro’s decision to go forward with presidential elections last week that the U.S. has called a “sham.”

The Maduro government has yet to comment on the reasons for the release.

Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who has Trump’s ear on Latin America, said the couple’s “release will in no way change U.S. policy towards the dictatorship in Venezuela.”

Holt and his wife were believed to be at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas awaiting transportation to Washington in a chartered flight.

Holt’s wife, Thamara, also was freed. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said Holt soon would be reunited with “his sweet, long-suffering family” in Riverton, Utah, where one of his wife’s two daughters from previous relationships has been living with Holt’s mother.

The U.S. government at first avoided ratcheting up public pressure on Venezuela amid already strained relations between the two countries, but eventually raised Holt’s case to the highest levels of the Venezuela government. Hatch and Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, also lobbied on behalf of Holt and decried his poor treatment in prison.

Holt had planned to spend several months in Caracas in the summer of 2016 with his new wife, Thamara Caleno, and her two daughters, to secure their visas so they could move with him to the U.S.

Instead, the couple was arrested at her family’s government housing complex on the outskirts of Caracas. Authorities arrested him on June 30, 2016, and accused him of stockpiling an assault rifle and grenades, suggesting his case was linked to other unspecified U.S. attempts to undermine Maduro’s rule amid deep economic and political turbulence.

They had been held in a notorious Caracas prison run by the secret police that’s also home to dozens of Maduro’s top opponents who have been jailed during the past few years of political unrest in the country.

Their trial was set to begin this month after repeated delays that led the Trump administration to question the motives for his detention, although until Trump’s tweet Saturday, the U.S. had stopped short of publicly calling Holt a “hostage.”

Holt’s mother, Laurie Holt, said all along that her son and his wife were wrongly accused. She worked feverishly to bring attention to her son’s incarceration, hosting rallies, fundraisers and doing media interviews.

Laurie Holt said her son has suffered numerous health problems in jail, including kidney stones and respiratory problems. He was depressed and at one point lost so much weight that he dropped several pant sizes, she said.

In their statement, the Holt family said, “We thank you for your collaboration during this time of anguish. We ask that you allow us to meet with our son and his wife before giving any interviews and statements. We are grateful to all who participated in this miracle.”

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Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP Writers Scott Smith in Caracas, Venezuela, and Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.

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