CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — 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 complaining of suffering without medical care.
Holt, 25, traveled to Venezuela in 2016 to marry a fellow Mormon he met on the internet and shortly later the couple was arrested at her family's apartment in a Caracas public housing complex by police who alleged 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 McClenny be present for the hearing as detained foreign nationals are entitled to 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 throwing up all night, feeling dizzy and struggling to think.
"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 press 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.
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 first lady Cilia Flores' two nephews in a separate, politically charged narcotics trial in the United States.
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 (800 kilograms) of cocaine into the U.S. They are scheduled to be sentenced Thursday.
Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.