A decorated Marine veteran being held hostage on dubious charges in Venezuela will stand trial Wednesday, causing the Marine's father to ramp up pleas to the Biden administration to bring his son home.
Matthew John Heath, a Tennessee resident and former U.S. Marine, stands accused of terrorism by the brutal regime of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. Venezuelan authorities imprisoned Heath in September 2020 after claiming he possessed military-grade weapons and a satellite-locked phone while entering the country. Heath denies the allegations, and experts say evidence of weapon possessions was likely planted after his arrest.
Robert Heath, the father of the imprisoned Marine, told the Washington Free Beacon that his son is being held for political reasons and that the Maduro regime is treating him as a "pawn" in an effort to coax sanctions relief from President Joe Biden.
"My son is innocent of the charges he is facing, something that was quickly proven in court months ago," Heath said. "Matthew is being held for political reasons. The trial he is facing has nothing to do with him—it is Maduro trying to get something from Biden, and my son is a pawn in the middle."
Since Heath's imprisonment, correspondence obtained by the U.S. government and testimony from Heath's legal team indicate he has suffered torture consistent with treatment given to other prisoners in Venezuela, such as asphyxiation, psychological torture, and threats of rape and other violence. State authorities have repeatedly denied the Marine veteran's relocation requests, forcing him to stay in one of Venezuela's most brutal facilities.
The White House declined to comment.
The Venezuelan government has consistently blocked Heath from seeing his attorney, and because of the permanent closure of the U.S. consulate in Venezuela, no American government official has any direct channel with Heath. The Tennessee resident has had no direct contact with his family or the U.S. government since he was first incarcerated.
Carrie Filipetti, the former deputy assistant secretary of state for Cuba and Venezuela and the executive director of the Vandenberg Coalition, said the opportunity for a fair trial is long past.
"Back in February, State Department spokesman Ned Price argued that the Maduro regime needs to provide a free, fair, and transparent trial," Filipetti said. "But we're already past that. In the 10 months since Matthew's arrest, nothing about it has been free, fair, or transparent. … I'm certain they will try to use him to negotiate for their benefit, whether it's sanctions relief, or release of other prisoners."
The sensitivity of hostage cases renders them difficult for public officials to comment on. Most cases are managed by Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, a Trump administration holdover who has won high praise from both parties for his professionalism and skill. A State Department spokeswoman acknowledged Heath's case but did not comment further.
"The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State," the spokeswoman said in a statement. "We are aware of reports of the arrest and subsequent incarceration of a U.S. citizen in Venezuela. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment."
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R., Tenn.), who represents Heath's home district, said he is working closely with the Biden administration to return the former Marine home. He also said the Maduro regime "has provided no indications" it will give Heath a fair trial.
"The Maduro regime has unjustly held Matthew Heath based on fabricated charges and false evidence in deplorable and inhumane conditions, denying him the basic tenets of due process that each person is entitled to in a court of law," Fleischmann said. "While my hope is that Mr. Heath receives justice and is released from his wrongful imprisonment, the regime has provided no indications that they are capable or interested in conducting a fair trial for Matthew. I will continue to encourage and work with the Biden Administration to explore diplomatic solutions that ensure Matthew's release and his return to his family in east Tennessee."
Robert Heath said his son's mental toughness will not waver during this difficult time. He hopes the Biden administration will press harder to make clear that the U.S. government will not tolerate such disregard for the rule of law.
"Matt's mental toughness was forged in the war while serving his country honorably in the U.S. Marine Corps, it will not waver," Heath said. "What I would like our government to do is impose sanctions on any and all countries … who are helping to prop up this regime. This should make it clear to all we will not stand for this total disregard of the rule of law and the inhumane treatment of Americans like my son Matthew and the other American hostages."
Heath said the family has abandoned any hope that Venezuela will give his son a fair trial.
"We have no expectations about this trial—the charges are false, there is no evidence, and Matthew's lawyer has been kept from seeing him—the trial lacks all credibility," Heath said. "There is no True Justice in Venezuela and no real rule of law."