CARACAS, May 19 – The Trump administration imposed sanctions on the chief judge and seven other members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court on Thursday as punishment for seizing powers from the opposition-led Congress earlier this year, U.S. officials said.
The new sanctions package was aimed at stepping up pressure on supporters of the leftist government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro amid growing U.S. concern over a crackdown on mass street protests.
Venezuela’s latest wave of anti-government unrest, which has left at least 44 people dead in the last six weeks, began with the Supreme Court, packed with Maduro loyalists, assuming the powers of the opposition-led Congress in late March.
There was swift and widespread international condemnation of the de facto annulment of the National Assembly, which the opposition won in late 2015 during an unprecedented economic and social crisis that has seen Maduro’s popularity plummet, and the decision was later partially reversed.
“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.”
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 their assets frozen within U.S. jurisdiction, and American citizens will be barred from doing business with them, the Treasury Department said.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in the South American nation of 30 million in protest against the Maduro’s government, demanding elections, freedom for jailed activists, foreign aid and autonomy for the opposition-led legislature.
Maduro’s government accuses them of seeking a violent coup and says many of the protesters are no more than “terrorists.”
The Treasury Department has in the past sanctioned Venezuelan officials or former officials, charging them with trafficking or corruption, a designation that allows their assets in the United States to be frozen and bars them from conducting financial transactions through the United States.
The officials have denied the charges and called them a pretext as part of an effort to topple Maduro’s government.
U.S. President Donald Trump has called the situation in Venezuela “a mess” and his aides have threatened tougher measures against Caracas. But sanctions so far have stopped short of hitting the oil sector in Venezuela, which is a major U.S. oil supplier.
With the latest sanctions, the U.S. government said the court members were being targeted because they had “usurped the authority of Venezuela’s democratically elected legislature.
In March, the court explicitly stated it was assuming the congress’ role in a ruling authorizing Maduro to create oil joint ventures without the previously mandated congressional approval. It said the National Assembly was in contempt.
The charge stems from vote-buying accusations against three lawmakers from southern Amazonas state. Even though they no longer sit in congress, the court said parliamentary leaders had not handled their case legally.
Critics of Maduro say it is an excuse for him to consolidate power and muzzle the opposition.