Knoxville Marine accused of being a spy, held in Venezuela

Former Marine and Knoxville native Matthew John Heath was detained in Venezuela in 2020, and a new executive order from Biden hopes to bring him and other Americans home.
Former Marine and Knoxville native Matthew John Heath was detained in Venezuela in 2020, and a new executive order from Biden hopes to bring him home.
Published: Jul. 19, 2022 at 3:00 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 22, 2022 at 11:38 PM EDT
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Bring Our Families Home Mural Unveiling

Family members of wrongfully detained Americans abroad unveil a mural in Georgetown dedicated to 18 American hostages.

Posted by WVLT on Wednesday, July 20, 2022

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - President Joe Biden signed an executive order Tuesday to strengthen efforts to bring home American hostages and those wrongfully detained in other countries.

Matthew John Heath is a former Marine from Knoxville who has been detained in Venezuela since September of 2020, according to the Associated Press.

According to a report from the AP, he was charged in connection to a terrorist plot to sabotage oil refineries and electrical service in order to stir unrest, Venezuela’s former Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab said on state television.

Heath was accused of having ties to the CIA and receiving help from three Venezuelan conspirators who were arrested with him near a pair of oil refineries on the Caribbean coast, according to Saab.

During the broadcast, Saab said there were pictures of possible targets on the men’s phones. He also showed pictures of a grenade launcher, plastic explosives, a satellite phone, as well as other equipment that he said was confiscated from the men when they were arrested.

“Everything here could qualify as a lethal weapon designed to cause harm and to promote assassinations, crimes against the people of Venezuela,” Saab said on state television, according to the report from AP.

Heath was charged with terrorism, trafficking illegal weapons and conspiracy.

Biden’s executive order strengthens the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking accountability Act to enforce the government’s ability to support the families of the hostages, as well as give the authority to impose sanctions on those involved in the detainment, a senior administrative official at the White House said.

“Foreign states that engage in the practice of wrongful detention, whether it’s for political leverage or to seek concessions from the United States, threaten the integrity of the international political system and, moreover, the safety of US nationals and other persons abroad,” the official said. “And the same can be said of terrorist organizations, criminal groups, and other malicious actors who take hostages for financial, political, or other nefarious gains.”

The order would also increase the communication with the American’s family on their condition as well as the efforts to bring them home.

“Frankly, all of us who work on these issues are blown away by the courage and the leadership the families in these awful circumstances show in an effort to make our government and all of us better in resolving these cases,” the official said.

The order would add a classification to the State Department’s travel advisory, noting a “D” if Americans were wrongfully detained in that country, to increase awareness for travelers.

“Its transparency will also show to governments that engage in this sort of reprehensible practice, and indeed to the world, our commitment to calling out this sort of behavior,” the senior administrative official said.

Of the six countries that received a D-risk indicator, one of them was Venezuela.

“I should emphasize here that this work to punish those responsible for this sort of behavior, to increase transparency, to share risks about hostage taking and wrongful detention, all of this is in addition to the very hard, very important work that we do with the NSC, with State Department, the FBI, and other colleagues across the government every day to resolve particular hostage and wrongful detainee matters. This isn’t a substitute, it’s in addition. And it is a way to increase transparency through the indicator, impose costs through the executive order, and overall, try to prevent the next set of families going through this horrible ordeal.”

Senior Administrative Official, The White House

Officials hoped the order would help open the conversation to bring Americans home. They mentioned that each side of the conversation gets a vote when discussing different strategies to bring the hostages or detainees home in a cooperative way.

“In a way, they have a very strong vote in that they hold the keys to the jail cell,” the senior administrative official said. “And what we often find ourselves doing is trying to strategize and organize and, frankly, work with the families to find ways that might get those keys to open up and we can bring an American home.”

Heath’s family traveled to D.C. for an unveiling of a mural that is set to showcase Americans who were taken hostage or wrongfully detained. The mural was sponsored by the Bring Our Families Home Campaign which is comprised of families of those being detained in foreign countries.

Heath’s uncle, Everett Rutherford, sits on the Steering Committee for the campaign. Below is the campaign’s statement on Heath’s detainment.

“Matthew John Heath is a decorated United States Marine Corps veteran. He has been wrongfully detained in Venezuela since September 9, 2020. According to the CASLA Institute, a respected human rights organization, Matthew was kidnapped in Colombia while on business related to his evolving pleasure boating business. He was then held for ransom. Members of our family received numerous appeals from Matthew in the weeks leading up to his arrest in Venezuela, and we believe he was being forced to ask for money by the kidnappers. Due to COVID-19, Colombian borders were closed and transportation routes out of the country evaporated. Matthew’s kidnappers extracted thousands of dollars from our family and his friends under the guise of “helping Matthew get back to the United States.” When the money ran out, so did Matthew’s value to the kidnappers and it appears that he was either dumped in Venezuela, or sold by the kidnappers to Venezuelan authorities. In Venezuelan hands, he was charged with crimes based on a fictitious story and planted evidence. Three and a half months after his arrest, he was placed in a detention center under inhumane conditions. He remains there to this day. Matthew has been physically tortured, psychologically abused, subjected to numerous breeches of due process and continues to endure trial for theater. Matthew is innocent and is being prosecuted and persecuted for reasons of politics and for being an American.”

Bring Our Families Home Campaign

The mural is set to be unveiled Wednesday in a Georgetown neighborhood and will feature 18 Americans, including Brittney Griner, who are being held hostage or being wrongfully detained abroad.

Heath’s mother, Connie Haynes, told WVLT News she was excited to tell his story.

“So nice to see all the support from the other hostages family,” Haynes said. “Also very emotional seeing my son’s picture knowing we should not still be in this situation.”

WVLT News has reached out to the Department of State as well as other governmental officials and are waiting on a response about how they are taking action to bring Heath home.

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