KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A Utah man named Joshua Holt traveled to Venezuela last year to marry his Venezuelan fiancee. But soon after he got there, he ended up behind bars on weapons charges. John Otis reports that Holt's family believes he is a victim of geopolitics.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: A former Eagle Scout and a Mormon missionary, 24-year-old Joshua Holt met Thamara Candelo through a religious website. After a whirlwind online romance, Holt and Candelo, a Venezuelan Mormon, agreed to get married in her home country.
But Venezuela is plagued by high crime, food shortages and political unrest that President Nicolas Maduro often blames on the United States. In a Skype interview, Holt's mother, Laurie, says she urged her son not to go.
LAURIE HOLT: I'd heard things that it was dangerous there, that they didn't like the Americans there. And he's like, Mom, it's not that bad. Don't worry. I'll be safe.
OTIS: After their honeymoon, the couple settled into Candelo's apartment in a housing project on the outskirts of Caracas. They had planned to move to the U.S. with Candelo's two young daughters and were waiting for approval for her U.S. visa. But on June 30, an anti-police squad burst into Candelo's apartment, where agents claimed to find an AK-47 assault rifle and a grenade. Holt and Candelo were hauled off to jail.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GUSTAVO GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: On state television, Interior Minister Gustavo Gonzalez linked the couple to a paramilitary gang that had recently killed a ruling party politician. But to some analysts, his evidence seemed thin.
MARIA CANDELO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: When I visit the couple's apartment, Holt's mother-in-law, Maria Candelo, who was here on the day of the raid, tells me she saw police slip the weapons into Holt's luggage. Holt's lawyer, Jeannette Prieto, says there are other holes in the case.
JEANNETTE PRIETO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: "They don't have a single fingerprint from the arms that matched those of my client," she says. This type of legal persecution happens all the time in Venezuela says Alfredo Romero, who directs Foro Penal, an organization of lawyers that defends political prisoners.
ALFREDO ROMERO: The executive power systematically has been repressing people and detaining people without any kind of legal justification.
OTIS: Facing waves of protests, the Maduro government arrested more than 5,000 people on what Romero calls trumped-up charges. Most were eventually released. But he thinks Holt is being held to justify Maduro's claim that the United States is trying to overthrow his government.
ROMERO: Everything that can be used to support this propaganda, it's OK for them.
OTIS: Holt and his wife have now spent nine months in jail without even a preliminary hearing.
CANDELO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: On visiting day, Maria Candelo arrives at the jail with clean clothes and a pot of spaghetti for Holt and her daughter. She says prison food doesn't agree with Holt and that he's lost about 60 pounds.
Back in Utah, Laurie Holt has been advised by the U.S. State Department not to travel to Venezuela to visit her son. But she hasn't given up hope.
HOLT: Eventually he'll come home, and we'll be able to go back to our normal lives and I can stop crying every night.
OTIS: Venezuelan officials did not respond to NPR's request for comment. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas, Venezuela.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "3WW")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.