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Utah man sues Maduro over trauma caused by nearly two years of imprisonment in Venezuela

A Utah man imprisoned for nearly two years in Venezuela has sued President Nicolás Maduro, accusing the leftist leader of heading a “criminal enterprise” that kidnaps, tortures and unjustly imprisons American citizens.

The complaint filed Thursday in Miami federal court by Joshua Holt is the latest in a string of lawsuits by Americans targeting Maduro’s government over its alleged ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist group.

It seeks compensation for damages Holt and his family said it suffered under a little-used federal law, the Anti-Terrorism Act, that allows American victims of foreign terror groups to seize the assets of their victimizers.

Holt, then in his mid-20s, traveled to Venezuela in 2016 to marry a fellow Mormon he met on the internet while practicing his Spanish. Shortly afterward, the couple was arrested at her family’s apartment in a public housing project during a raid by security forces who said they found him stockpiling an assault weapon and grenades. A few days later, top officials appeared on state TV accusing Holt of being a “CIA terrorist” sent to topple Maduro.

Holt, in his 99-page complaint, details how after being arrested he was driven to an abandoned construction site where he was lined up against a wall while what looked like a firing squad pointed their guns at him and fired.

“It was a mock execution: the guns were not loaded,” according to the complaint. “Josh thought ‘this is the point where I’m going to die, one of these police officers is going to have a bullet.’ ”

Holt lost 60 pounds in the first six months of his imprisonment. And with almost no medical treatment, he endured kidney stones, bronchitis, and a painful cracked tooth while secluded in a tiny stench-filled cell with no toilet.

His wife, Thamy Holt, was also jailed and repeatedly pressured to sign a confession that her husband was part of a CIA plot — something she never agreed to do.

Eventually, in 2018, Holt would be released as a result of back-channel negotiations led by a staff member for Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before retiring in 2019. According to the complaint, Holt’s jailer, Gustavo Gonzalez Lopez, then head of the SEBIN intelligence police, acknowledged the bogus nature of the charges upon the American’s release.

“I’m sorry you had to go through this,” Gonzalez Lopez, according to the complaint, told Holt as he personally escorted the American from jail to a waiting jet that would ferry Holt to freedom and an immediate White House rendezvous with then-President Donald J. Trump.

The lawsuit seeks damages for the trauma the Holts say they and their loved ones continue to suffer, including anxiety disorders, insomnia and depression. Laurie Holt, who led the campaign for her son’s release, died in 2019 at age 50 of heart disease that her family believes was caused by the long imprisonment.

“Unfortunately, the Holts’ escape from Venezuela was not the end of the Holt family’s ordeal,” the complaint says.

Other Americans imprisoned in Venezuela have succeeded in winning major judgments against Maduro and his inner circle on similar legal grounds.

In 2022, a federal judge in Miami awarded $73 million in damages to the family of a prominent opponent of Maduro who died while in custody after inexplicably falling from the 10th floor of a building belonging to the SEBIN police. And last year an exiled Venezuelan lawyer won $153 million after he was lured back home by his father’s kidnapping only to end up imprisoned himself on trumped-up charges of working as a “financial terrorist” undermining Maduro’s rule.

As in the earlier cases, Holt in his lawsuit accused Maduro of controlling the “Cartel of the Suns,” a purported drug-smuggling ring involving top Venezuelan officials and guerrillas from the FARC that allegedly sends 200 metric tons of cocaine from Venezuela into the U.S. each year.

But collecting those large rewards has proven daunting. Neither Maduro nor any of his close aides are known to have properties or bank accounts in the U.S. under their name. Whatever wealth officials have stolen is more likely to be held by a myriad of front men whose assets are hard to trace and seize.

“These allied countries who engage in massive criminal enterprise are black belts at hiding their money,” said Sam Dubbin a Miami attorney who has represented Cuban doctors seeking justice for forced labor by the island’s communist government.

One of Maduro’s alleged front men, Colombian-born businessman Alex Saab, is named as a defendant in Holt’s lawsuit. According to the complaint, Saab’s arrest in 2020 in Cape Verde on a U.S. warrant for money laundering led the “Maduro criminal enterprise” to begin a campaign of arresting even more Americans to use as “bargaining chips” to barter for his release.

Biden last year granted clemency to Saab as part of a swap for 10 Americans and a fugitive Pentagon contractor imprisoned in Venezuela. Maduro insists Saab was a Venezuelan diplomat unlawfully detained during a fuel stop enroute to Iran to buy food and medicine that has grown scarce under U.S. sanctions.

Among the six other Maduro loyalists named as defendants allegedly responsible for Holt’s imprisonment are Venezuela’s chief prosecutor, the commander of the armed forces and the head of the supreme court.

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Follow Goodman: @APJoshGoodman


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