U.S. Missionary Home After Two Years Behind Bars In Venezuela

Donald Trump tells Holt in white House meeting he had been “incredibly brave”.

WASHINGTON/CARACAS (Reuters) -- American 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.

They were welcomed to the White House by U.S. President Donald Trump, who 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’s parents.

The freeing of the Mormon missionary from Utah came despite deepening U.S.-Venezuelan tensions that in the last week saw tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, Washington’s refusal to recognize the May 20 re-election of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and the imposition of new U.S. sanctions on Caracas.

Holt, who was arrested in June 2016 while he was in the country for his wedding to his Venezuela-born wife, said he was “overwhelmed” to be back home after two very difficult years.

“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.

The couple were accompanied home by U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who met on Friday with Maduro.

Utah Senator Orrin 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.

Joshua Holt's father Jason Holt (L-R), daughter Marian Leal, mother Laurie Holt and wife Thamara Caleo at The White House. Source: Getty Images

“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”.

A source familiar with the issue who asked to remain anonymous said 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.”

He was echoed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said U.S. policy remains unchanged. “The United States stands steadfast in support of the Venezuelan people and their efforts to return to democracy,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Holt and his wife had been charged with espionage, violence and spreading activities against Venezuela’s constitutional order.

Holt was held without trial at the headquarters of intelligence agency Sebin, a Caracas complex known as the Helicoide.

His family says Holt was framed on the weapons charges and the United States accused Caracas of using him as a bargaining chip in sanctions talks.