By Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick
WASHINGTON (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.”
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)