- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 6, 2016

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - A Utah man jailed in Venezuela since June had his hopes for being reunited with his family for Christmas all but dashed Tuesday by the fourth postponement of a preliminary hearing.

Judge Elena Cassiani did not appear for the scheduled hearing at which she was supposed to rule on whether to dismiss the weapons charges against Joshua Holt. A new date was set for January.

Holt, a 24-year-old former Mormon missionary, said he travelled to Venezuela to marry a woman he met online while looking for Spanish-speaking Mormons to help him improve his Spanish. Venezuelan officials allege he was using his wife’s apartment to stockpile weapons and have suggested his case is linked to other unspecified attempts by the U.S. government to undermine President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist rule amid deep economic and political turbulence.

The U.S. House passed a resolution in September calling for the release of Holt and other political prisoners in Venezuela. Secretary of State John Kerry raised Holt’s jailing during a meeting with Maduro in September, and a senior State Department official traveled to Caracas twice in recent weeks in part to push for his release.

The pressure has so far yielded no tangible results. Human rights groups contend Maduro’s government is using Holt and his jailed wife, an Ecuadorean national, as bargaining chips to extract concessions from the United States.

Holt is being held in a prison in Caracas run by Venezuela’s intelligence police. The facility also holds a number of activists that the opposition considers political prisoners.

His lawyer says that Holt has lost considerable weight and suffered from a host of ailments, including kidney stones. Holt also has allegedly had to endure harassment by prison guards who forced him to strip naked in a hallway and perform exercises.

In a letter from jail, Holt said the assault rifle and a grenade found in his wife’s apartment were planted when he refused to pay police a bribe during a routine raid in the government-built housing complex where he was staying with his wife and her son.

Interior Minister Gustavo Gonzalez, who oversees the intelligence police and was sanctioned by the Obama administration in 2014 for human rights abuses, has called Holt a “trained gunman” intent on destabilizing Venezuela.

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