Utah man jailed in Venezuela pleas for freedom in video

AP News
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Posted: May 16, 2018 10:36 PM
Utah man jailed in Venezuela pleas for freedom in video

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A Utah man imprisoned in Venezuela for two years without a trial is making an emotional plea for Americans' help getting out of a Caracas jail, saying Wednesday in a clandestinely shot video that his life was threatened during a riot in the country's most-notorious prison.

In two 20-second videos shot on a cellphone and posted on his Facebook page, a visibly distraught Joshua Holt suggested that his patience is running out with the U.S. government, which has made his release a top priority in its dealings with Venezuela's socialist government.

"I've been begging my government for two years. They say they're doing things but I'm still here," said Holt.

The 26-year-old Holt traveled to Venezuela in 2016 to marry a fellow Mormon he met on the internet. Shortly afterward, the couple was arrested at her family's apartment in a Caracas public housing project after police said they found him stockpiling an assault weapon and grenades.

"Please my fellow Americans don't allow me to continue suffering in Venezuela," Holt said in a written message, also posted on his Facebook page. "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!"

His first-ever video message from jail came amid what the U.S. government described as a "riot" Wednesday by fellow inmates, including some of President Nicolas Maduro's top opponents being held alongside the American. The disturbance, the extent of which was not immediately known, came as Venezuelans are on edge days before a presidential election that Maduro is widely expected to win despite a crushing economic crisis marked by widespread shortages and hyperinflation.

"The people have taken the entire prison. They're trying to break in. They're saying they want to kill me. They're saying they want me as their guarantee," Holt said in one of the videos, without clarifying who was allegedly trying to harm him.

Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab sent a commission to the El Helicoide prison to speak with a representative of the inmates. While he didn't provide details about the disturbance, or what sparked it, he said on Twitter that the delegates offered to coordinate with prison and judicial authorities to address the demands of inmates at El Helicoide, which is the headquarters of the feared Sebin intelligence police.

The inmates were demanding due process rights like speedier hearings and the immediate freedom for prisoners who have received a judge's release order. Foro Penal, a lawyer cooperative, said 20 of the 54 detainees there that the opposition deems to be political prisoners have been granted parole, but are having their release blocked by the government for no stated reasons.

Socialist party leader Diosdado Cabello accused the inmates of staging the revolt to spread anxiety ahead of Sunday's vote.

The Trump administration has suggested there are political motives for Holt's continued detention. His trial on weapons charges was scheduled to start Tuesday but Holt and his wife, Thamara Caleno, were never taken to the courthouse by their jailers.

"The Sebin has told me that as long as my government continues attacking this government and as long as Marco Rubio continues talking about me the longer that they will never let me go," Holt said in a written message, referring to the Republican senator from Florida who has accused Maduro of keeping Holt as a "hostage" to extract concessions from the U.S.

The Trump administration has warned that it could put crippling oil sanctions on Venezuela if Maduro goes ahead with what the U.S. and others consider a sham presidential election Sunday. Several of Maduro's top opponents are barred from running.

A group of about 30 people, many of them family members of inmates considered by many to be political prisoners, gathered outside the jail to seek information about their loved ones as a number of videos and audio recordings from inside the jail flooded social media. None of the prisoners' claims could be verified by The Associated Press.

In one, Daniel Ceballos, a former opposition mayor, is seen trying to jimmy open the padlock on a cell using a dumbbell and iron rod. In another, a shirtless youth runs down a narrow hallway and knocks out an overhead light with a long stick to shouts of encouragement by other inmates.

Amid statements of concern by Utah's congressional delegation, Todd Robinson, the top American diplomat in Venezuela, rushed to the foreign ministry to seek information about Holt. But he left shortly after nightfall with no answers, saying he was unable to meet with the foreign minister and other officials, including Maduro, either didn't take the embassy's calls or claimed not to have any knowledge about the case.

"We are concerned about the riot at El Helicoide," Robinson said, referring to the helix-shaped building where Maduro's top opponents are being held.

"Joshua Holt and other U.S. citizens are in danger," he added. "The government of Venezuela is directly responsible for their safety and will be held responsible if anything happens to them. We renew our call for the government to release Joshua Holt on humanitarian grounds."

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Associated Press writers Scott Smith and Fabiola Sanchez in Caracas contributed to this report.

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman