March 7, 2018 / 7:57 PM / 5 months ago

As sanctions loom, Venezuelan official seeks U.S. talks over Utah man held prisoner

WASHINGTON, March 7 (Reuters) - A Venezuelan state governor made an unusual visit to Washington this week seeking meetings with Congress members to discuss the fate of a Utah man imprisoned in the South American nation, U.S. sources said on Wednesday, as the country faces a possible new round of sanctions.

Rafael Lacava, the governor of Venezuela’s Carabobo state, has requested meetings to discuss the imprisonment of Josh Holt, a Mormon missionary from Utah, and his wife, Thamara Caleno. The couple have been held since June 2016, when they were arrested on weapons charges shortly after Holt traveled to Venezuela to marry Caleno.

“We are aware that he is here. There are suspicions that the Venezuela government is using the illegitimate detention of Mr. Holt as a bargaining chip to talk about U.S. sanctions,” a U.S. official said.

“We continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr. Holt and until he is released we continue to insist on regular ongoing consular contacts with him as called for under international law,” the official said.

It is unusual for an official from Venezuela to visit Washington for such meetings.

Washington and Caracas are international adversaries, with disagreements on a wide range of issues. President Donald Trump’s administration is considering new sanctions targeting the country’s oil sector to increase pressure on socialist President Nicolas Maduro as he runs for another term in an election Washington and its allies consider a sham.

Another U.S. source familiar with the situation confirmed that Lacava was in Washington to discuss Holt’s situation, but did not believe that sanctions relief would be discussed in meetings with members of Congress since lawmakers would defer to the Trump administration on any such matter.

“While I am not able to speculate on what else might be on Mr. Lacava’s agenda, I want to make very clear that the sole purpose of such meetings would be to encourage the release of Mr. Holt and his wife,” the source said.

“There would be no negotiation, and any claim to the contrary is simply false,” the source said.

Lawmakers, led by Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, have been advocating for Holt’s immediate release.

A Hatch spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Lacava’s visit. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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