US raises concerns to Venezuela about jailed Utah man

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro in Cartagena, Colombia Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Vivian Salama)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Venezuela president Nicolas Maduro in Cartagena, Colombia Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Vivian Salama)

WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised concerns during a meeting this week with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro about a Utah man jailed in the South American country for three months.

Kerry called on Venezuela to respect due process and human rights in the case of Joshua Holt, 24, State Department spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday. Kirby would not provide details about the conversation, but said the department is following the case closely.

Kerry’s involvement has raised hopes for Holt’s mother and members of Utah’s congressional delegation.

His mother, Laurie Holt, said Thursday that she’s pleased her son’s case has reached the top levels of governments in both countries. State Department officials called her about the development, but said they did not know details of what Kerry and Maduro discussed, she said.

“I feel like this is a step in the right direction,” she said. “President Maduro will see Joshua’s case and the type of person he is.”

U.S. diplomats visited Holt in a Caracas prison last month but the U.S. government had previously avoided ratcheting up public pressure on Venezuela amid already strained relations between two countries that haven’t swapped ambassadors since 2010.

Holt was arrested on June 30 on suspicion of weapons charges after traveling to Venezuela to marry a woman he met online while looking for Spanish-speaking Mormons to help him improve his Spanish. His wife, Theresa Caleno, is also jailed as an alleged accomplice.

Venezuela authorities contend Holt was using his wife’s apartment in Caracas to stockpile weapons and have suggested his case was linked to other unspecified attempts by the U.S. to undermine President Maduro’s rule amid deep economic and political turbulence.

His mother said she thinks an assault rifle and a grenade found in the apartment her son shared with his wife were planted.

Holt said her son is depressed, suffered from kidney stones and respiratory illness and has lost weight, dropping from a pant size 40 to 30. She said life has come to a standstill for her, her husband and their other children as they focus on trying to free Joshua Holt and raise money to pay lawyer fees.

A court hearing on his case in Venezuela scheduled for earlier this month was canceled. A new hearing has been set for Oct. 11, she said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said in a statement Thursday he received a phone call from Vice President Joe Biden about Kerry’s conversation with Maduro. Hatch said Biden is committed to working with Secretary Kerry to return Holt to his family.

U.S. Rep. Mia Love has worked on Holt’s behalf, co-sponsoring a resolution that passed the House this week calling for the release of Holt and other “political prisoners” in Venezuela.

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