WASHINGTON/CARACAS (REUTERS) - American missionary Josh Holt, held by Venezuela without trial on weapons charges since 2016, was heading home with his wife on Saturday (May 26) after the South American country's socialist government unexpectedly released him.
They were being accompanied by US Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, who met on Friday with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Corker's office said.
The freeing of the Mormon missionary from Utah came despite deepening US -Venezuelan tensions that in the last week saw tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats, Washington's refusal to recognize the May 20 re-election of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and the imposition of new US sanctions on Caracas.
Speaking at a news conference in Caracas, Communications Minister Jorge Rodriguez said Holt and his wife, Thamy, were freed as part of efforts by Maduro's government to maintain"respectful diplomatic relations" with Washington.
"This type of gesture ... allows us to consolidate what has always been our standpoint: dialogue, agreement, respect for our independence, respect for our sovereignty," Rodriguez said.
Holt and his wife had been charged with espionage, violence and spreading activities against Venezuela's constitutional order, he said.
They were expected to arrive in Washington on Saturday evening and join Holt's family at the White House, US President Donald Trump said on Twitter.
Utah Senator Orrin Hatch said in a statement that Holt's release followed two years of intense lobbying, working with two presidential administrations, countless diplomatic contacts around the world, and Maduro himself.
"I could not be more honored to be able to reunite Josh with his sweet, long-suffering family," Hatch said.
FAMILY HAILS 'MIRACLE'
In a statement on Facebook, Holt's family gave thanks "to all who participated in this miracle," but asked to be allowed to meet him and his wife before giving any further statements or interviews.
Matt Whitlock, a spokesman for Hatch, said the Utah Republican called Maduro last week after hearing of riots by inmates at the intelligence agency headquarters where Holt was held. In a Facebook post during the uprising, Holt had pleaded for freedom and said people were trying to break into his cell to kill him.
"Josh had posted videos and pled for help so Senator Hatch made one final plea directly to President Maduro that set wheels in motion," Whitlock wrote in an email to Reuters. "Chairman Corker went down mid-week to close the deal, and his staff have been instrumental in moving the ball forward."
Venezuelan authorities arrested Holt in June 2016 while he was in Venezuela for his wedding, and he was held without trial at the headquarters of intelligence agency Sebin, a Caracas complex known as the Helicoide.
His family says Holt was framed on the weapons charges and the United States accused Caracas of using him as a bargaining chip in sanctions talks.
The United States accuses Maduro's government of stifling democracy, repressing the opposition and massive corruption. Maduro says Washington is conspiring to topple him and seize the OPEC member's large oil reserves.
He blames a US "economic war" for Venezuela's fiscal woes, including hyper-inflation and food and medicine shortages that have triggered mass emigration.
Dorothy Kronick, an assistant political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said the big question was what Maduro got in return for freeing Holt.
Maybe it was sanctions relief, a distraction from international condemnation of the election, an IOU from Trump, or even a seat between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte at a future White House dinner, Kronick said in an email.
"Both Maduro and Trump are known for making choices that do not appear to serve traditional political goals," she said.