A Utah man who’s been held at a Venezuelan prison for nearly two years begged his followers and friends on Wednesday to get him released, saying so far, the U.S. government has failed him and that he feared for his life during an ongoing riot there.
In two 20-second videos posted Wednesday to his personal Facebook page, Josh Holt says a group of people has taken control of the Caracas prison, known as El Helicoide, and that they are trying to kill him.
“They’re outside,” he says, “They’re trying to break in. They’re trying to kill me.”
In a third video, tweeted by Venezuelan news network TV Venezuela, Holt stands by three people he says have been imprisoned without trial for four years and seems to try to clarify his earlier statements. Holt, who appears to be wearing the same black T-shirt he had on in Facebook posts published earlier Wednesday, says he has not been kidnapped by inmates and that the prisoners are his friends.
Instead, he says, he’s been kidnapped by the Venezuelan government, and he and the other inmates, thus far denied a trial and adequate medical treatment, need help.
Holt’s attorney, Carlos Trujillo did not immediately respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s attempt to verify the video.
Rep. Mia Love said Wednesday afternoon in a statement that her office had confirmed the prison was “threatened by riots and violence” but that Holt was “safe at this time.” She said she is “extremely concerned” about the situation.
The Associated Press reported that the extent of the riot — which comes days before controversial President Nicolas Maduro is expected to be re-elected despite a staggering economic crisis — wasn’t immediately known. Some inmates in the prison are “top opponents” of Maduro, according to the AP.
Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab, the AP reported, sent a commission to the El Helicoide prison to speak with inmate representatives.
Inmates in the prison, which is the headquarters for the Sebin intelligence police, are demanding due process rights, like speedier hearings and for the prison to recognize judges’ release orders, the AP reported, saying 20 of the 54 detainees deemed political prisoners have been granted parole, but the government has blocked their release.
In the earlier videos, Holt called on Americans to step up to get him out, since he’s been asking the government for help for nearly two years to no avail.
Holt, 26, has been locked in the prison since June 2016, when he and his wife, Thamara “Thamy” Caleno, were arrested on suspicion of illegally possessing weapons. Holt had traveled to Venezuela to marry Caleno, whom he met online. His family has denied the accusations and believe the Venezuelan government is holding Holt and his wife to bargain with the U.S., which has imposed economic sanctions on the country.
Trujillo has said the imprisonment might be related to U.S. prosecutors convicting two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady, Cilia Flores, on charges of drug trafficking.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has been working with the Venezuelan government to release the Utah man, is aware of Holt’s situation and spoke with Holt’s family, the Trump administration and Venezuelan contacts on Wednesday, Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock said in a statement.
“He remains focused on Josh’s safety as we work to bring him home on humanitarian grounds,” Whitlock said.
Love said she had reached out to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the White House and the National Security Council on Holt’s behalf, according to a statement from her office.
“It is time for the State Department to quickly produce a plan of action in order to resolve this situation once and for all. Josh and his family have suffered far too long,” the statement said.
The U.S. Embassy in Venezuela released a statement on Twitter about the prison mutiny, saying it will hold the Venezuelan government responsible if anything happens to Holt or other American citizens in the prison.
Written in Spanish, the tweet translates to, “We're very worried about the mutiny in the Helicoide [prison]. Joshua Holt and other American citizens are in danger. The Venezuelan government is directly responsible for their security and we will hold it responsible if something happens to them.”
Trujillo declined to discuss how Holt was posting videos on his Facebook page, saying Holt’s safety was in jeopardy and he didn’t want to release any information that might harm him.
The Holt family released a statement through Trujillo, saying they were “deeply troubled and concerned” about the riots.
“We ask that our government and representatives act immediately to achieve their safety,” it read. “We ask the community to join in with prayers on their behalf, as well.”
Holt’s prison stay has been fraught with setbacks and near tragedies. A judge rescheduled his preliminary hearing five times without explanation before it was held in October and has been slow to make a decision in the case, such as whether he should be charged.
He also suffered a concussion and possible broken back in July 2017 after falling from his bunk and was reported to be in “dire” health with an untreated infection in December.
Holt asked for help in December as well, that time via an audio recording.
In the recording, Holt was breathing heavily and said he’d been throwing up all night.
“I’m very dizzy, and I can’t think, and my stomach hurts,” he said. “Super bad. I don’t know what to do. I’ve never felt like this before.”
Based on Holt’s condition and lack of treatment at the time, Trujillo asked for Holt to be released under humanitarian grounds. The request was declined.