Venezuela Supreme Court judges hit with U.S. sanctions


Reuters

UPDATE 4-Venezuela Supreme Court judges hit with U.S. sanctions


(Adds foreign minister condemnation, Maduro appearance on
television)
    By Patricia Zengerle and Matt SpetalnickWASHINGTON, May 18 (Reuters) - The Trump administration
imposed sanctions on the chief judge and seven other members of
Venezuela's Supreme Court on
Thursday as punishment for annulling the opposition-led Congress
earlier this year, U.S. officials said.
    The new sanctions package was aimed at stepping up pressure
on the leftist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro
and his loyalists amid growing concern over a crackdown on
street protests and his efforts to consolidate his rule over the
South American oil-producing country.
    The move provoked condemnation from Venezuelan Foreign
Minister Delcy Rodriguez. "It's outrageous and unacceptable for
the United States to impose sanctions on a sovereign and
independent nation in violation of Venezuelan and international
laws," she said on Twitter.
    Venezuela's latest wave of anti-government unrest, which has
left at least 45 people dead in the last six weeks, began with
the Supreme Court, packed with Maduro supporters, assuming the
authorities of the opposition-led Congress in late March.
    There was an international outcry against the court's de
facto annulment of the National Assembly, which the opposition
won in late 2015 during an unprecedented economic and social
crisis. The decision was later partially reversed, though it did
not stop the unrest.
    "The Venezuelan people are suffering from a collapsing
economy brought about by their government's mismanagement and
corruption. Members of the country's Supreme Court of Justice
have exacerbated the situation by consistently interfering with
the legislative branch's authority," U.S. Treasury Secretary
Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
    "By imposing these targeted sanctions, the United States is
supporting the Venezuelan people in their efforts to protect and
advance democratic governance in their country," he said.
    Among those hit with sanctions was Maikel Moreno, a Maduro
ally who became president of the 32-judge court in February. All
of those targeted will have U.S. assets frozen and be denied
travel to the United States, while American citizens will be
barred from doing business with them, officials said.
    Maduro spoke on state television for some two hours on
Thursday soon after the sanctions were confirmed but made no
mention of them.
    Word of the new sanctions came as President Donald Trump
expressed dismay at how once-prosperous Venezuela was now mired
in poverty, saying "it's been unbelievably poorly run."
    Speaking in Washington alongside visiting President Juan
Manuel Santos of Colombia, Venezuela's neighbor, Trump called
the humanitarian situation "a disgrace to humanity" and promised
to help fix it, but he offered no new U.S. approach.
    A senior U.S. official warned of further action against "bad
actors" if there are no changes in the country. But sanctions so
far have stopped short of hitting the oil sector in Venezuela,
which is a major U.S. oil supplier.
    Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, who had pushed for
further sanctions, called the measures a message "to Maduro and
his thugs that their actions are not going to go unpunished."

    UNREST
    Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets
across Venezuela in protest against the Maduro's government,
demanding elections, freedom for jailed activists, foreign aid
and autonomy for the opposition-led legislature.
    Maduro's aides accuse them of seeking a violent coup.
    The Treasury Department has in the past sanctioned
Venezuelan officials or former officials, charging them with
trafficking or corruption. In February, the United States
blacklisted Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami for
alleged links to drug trafficking.
    The officials have denied the charges and called them a
pretext to try to topple Maduro's government, something
Washington has denied.
    The U.S. government said the judges were being targeted
because they had "usurped" democratic authority.
    In March, the court stated it was assuming the Congress'
role in a ruling authorizing Maduro to create oil joint ventures
without the previously mandated congressional approval.
    The court said the National Assembly was in contempt over
vote-buying accusations against three lawmakers. Even though
they no longer sit in Congress, the court said opposition
leaders had not handled their case legally.
    The decision was partially reversed though protests have
continued nationwide. Maduro's critics say it was an excuse for
him to consolidate power and muzzle the opposition.

 (Additional reporting by John Walcott, David Brunnstrom and
Yara Bayoumy in Washington, Girish Gupta in Caracas; editing by
Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)
 ((Matt.Spetalnick@thomsonreuters.com; +1-202-898-8300; Reuters
Messaging: matt.spetalnick@thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

Keywords: VENEZUELA POLITICS/USA (UPDATE 4)



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