Venezuelan judge orders that Utah man Josh Holt be tried on weapons charges

FILE - In this July 30, 2016, file photo, a woman holds a photograph of Josh Holt, an American jailed in Venezuela, during a rally at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. A judge in Venezuela is dashing the hopes of the Utah man of being united with his family for Christmas after deciding on Dec. 12, 2017 to send him to trial on weapons charges. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Caracas, Venezuela • A Venezuelan judge ruled Tuesday that a jailed American man must stand trial on weapons charges, dashing hopes of his family in Utah that he would be released and united with them for Christmas.

The ruling, issued at a preliminary hearing to which the U.S. Embassy’s top diplomat was denied access, came almost 18 months after Joshua Holt was arrested. It was a day after his mother released an audio recording of her son saying he was suffering without medical care.

Holt’s family has said the charges against him are false.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, in a statement on his Facebook page, said he called on the president, vice president, State Department and United Nations for help after Holt’s family received more “bad news” from Venezuela. He said his staff is seeking “new avenues” to work with the Venezuelan government to release Holt.

“We will not give up,” Hatch said in a statement.

Holt’s preliminary hearing had been rescheduled five times in the past year before it was held in October, Holt’s Salt Lake City-based attorney Carlos Trujillo said. He said he sees Tuesday’s ruling as another way to prolong Holt’s incarceration.

“We know that this is just another procedural maneuver that they have found to be able to kick the case down the road even further and be able to keep him imprisoned in Venezuela even longer,” Trujillo said.

Trujillo said he doesn’t know the government’s motive for holding Holt, but the lawyer said it seems authorities are trying to use the American to bargain with the U.S., which has imposed economic sanctions against Venezuela. The U.S. also prosecuted and convicted two nephews of Venezuela’s first lady, Cilia Flores, on charges of drug trafficking.

Holt, 25, traveled to Venezuela in 2016 to marry a fellow Mormon he met on the internet. Shortly afterward, the couple were arrested at her family’s apartment in a Caracas public housing complex by police who said he was stockpiling weapons.

“I’m totally devastated. I don’t even know what to think,” the mother, Laurie Holt, told The Associated Press by telephone from her home near Salt Lake City. “I can’t understand how they can send a young kid who’s completely innocent to trial and feel good about that.”

Judge Ana Maria Gamuza’s decision to formally charge Holt and his wife, Thamara Candelo, came almost two months after she heard arguments in support and against his continued imprisonment — another procedural delay that Washington has cited as evidence the case is being politicized by President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government to retaliate against U.S. economic sanctions.

Further stoking those concerns, Lee McClenny, the head of the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela, was forced Tuesday to wait outside the courtroom for hours after the judge refused to grant him access to the proceedings in apparent violation of the Vienna Convention on consular rights.

Laurie Holt said her son had requested that McClenny be present for the hearing; detained foreign nationals are entitled to do so under the treaty, to which Venezuela is a party.

On Monday, the mother shared an audio recording of her that she said was sent by cellphone, and she pleaded with Venezuelan authorities to release him on humanitarian grounds.

In the 40-second voicemail message, Holt talks about vomiting all night.

“I’m very dizzy, and I can’t think and my stomach hurts,” he says. “It hurts bad, and I don’t know what to do. I’ve never felt like this before.”

Alarmed by the recording, the State Department on Tuesday reiterated its call for Holt’s release.

“He’s in extremely poor health. We want him to be brought home,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at a briefing in which she said she expected U.S. Embassy officials would be present at the hearing.

Holt said she hasn’t heard from her son since he made the distress call Monday morning, and she fears his cellphone was taken away in retaliation for her decision to release the recording.

Despite Tuesday’s ruling, Trujillo said he’s hopeful Holt will be released from prison on humanitarian grounds because his client isn’t receiving adequate medical care.

“All that they keep doing is just kind of patching him. The emergency crew goes in, they give him an IV, they get him up on his feet, and they just kind of leave him,” Trujillo said.

Trujillo said getting Holt medical treatment is his main concern.

Holt and Candelo are being held in the Helicoide, a spiral shaped Caracas prison where Maduro’s most prominent political opponents are jailed.

In an odd twist in the case, his legal defense is being paid for by a wealthy Venezuelan shipping magnate with close ties to Maduro’s government. The same businessman, Wilmer Ruperti, is funding the defense of Flores’ nephews.

The nephews, Efrain Campos and Francisco Flores, were arrested by police in Haiti in 2015 and convicted a year ago of conspiring to smuggle more than 1,700 pounds of cocaine into the U.S. They are scheduled to be sentenced Thursday.

— Tribune reporter Paighten Harkins contributed to this story.