President Donald Trump welcomed to the White House Saturday a man freed after being imprisoned without trial in Venezuela for two years.
American Mormon missionary Josh Holt, held by Venezuela without trial on weapons charges since 2016, returned home with his wife on Saturday after the South American country’s socialist government unexpectedly released them.
At the White House, Trump told Holt he had been “incredibly brave.”
“It’s amazing that you were able to take it ... that was a tough situation,” Trump said during a televised meeting at the Oval Office with Holt and his parents.
“I’m just so grateful for what you guys have done, and for thinking about me, and caring about me, just a normal person,” Holt said during the Oval Office meeting. “It really touches me,” he said, his voice breaking.
Why was Holt Arrested?
Holt, from Utah, was arrested in June 2016, after travelling to Venezuela to marry Thamara Caleño, a native of the country.
Shortly after his marriage, he was arrested and accused by the Venezuelan government of stockpiling weapons and attempting to destabilize the government, according to reports.
He was held for nearly two years in Venezuela without going on trial.
Holt’s release comes more than a week after he posted a video to Facebook during a prison riot in the jail he was incarcerated in, pleading for help from the U.S. government.
Matt Whitlock, a spokesman for Senator Orrin Hatch, said the Utah Republican called Maduro last week after hearing of riots by inmates at the intelligence agency headquarters where Holt was held.
The couple were accompanied home by U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who met on Friday with Maduro.
Why was he freed?
Senator Hatch, who was also at the Oval Office meeting, said earlier on Saturday in a statement that Holt’s release followed two years of intense lobbying, working with two presidential administrations, countless diplomatic contacts around the world, and Maduro himself.
“You better really live a good life,” Hatch told Holt at the White House, drawing chuckles from Holt’s family and others.
In a statement, Holt’s relatives gave thanks “to all who participated in this miracle.”
His family had claimed Holt was framed on the weapons charges and the United States had accused Caracas of using him as a bargaining chip in sanctions talks.
In televised comments as recently as the beginning of the month, the No. 2 official in Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party, Diosdado Cabello, described Holt as “the head of U.S. espionage in Latin America,” and said that he would remain behind bars.
A source familiar with the issue, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters there was no quid pro quo or agreement to ease U.S. sanctions tied to Holt’s release, and that Trump was not involved in the final negotiations.
“Very glad that Josh Holt is now back home with his family – where he has always belonged,” U.S. Vice President Mike Pence wrote on Twitter. “Sanctions continue until democracy returns to Venezuela.”
At a news conference in Caracas earlier on Saturday, Venezuelan Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez said Holt and his wife were freed as part of efforts by Maduro’s government to maintain “respectful diplomatic relations” with Washington.
“This type of gesture... allows us to consolidate what has always been our standpoint: dialogue, agreement, respect for our independence, respect for our sovereignty,” Rodriguez said.
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