Venezuela Supreme Court chief rebuffs Pence's threats of sanctions

Venezuela's Supreme Court President Maikel Moreno reads a statement in Caracas, Venezuela January 22, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's Supreme Court head, Maikel Moreno, on Wednesday rebuffed the U.S. government's threats to sanction members of his court if they did not reject President Nicolas Maduro's government and back opposition leader Juan Guaido. The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions in 2017 on Moreno and the seven principal members of the court's constitutional chamber for rulings that "usurped the authority" of the opposition-controlled legislature, the National Assembly, now headed by Guaido. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the Trump administration would soon sanction the 25 remaining members of the court, which the opposition says Maduro has stacked with supporters. "Mike Pence is trying to submit Venezuela's top legal authorities to threats that violate the principles of independence, self-determination and sovereignty," Moreno said in comments broadcast on state television. "We cannot be blackmailed and we will never bow before a foreign government that seeks to violate the sovereignty of our country." Pence said on Tuesday that the United States was lifting economic sanctions on a former Venezuelan general who turned against Maduro in order to encourage other Maduro allies to follow suit. An attempted uprising last week led by Guaido, recognized as the legitimate head of state by the United States and other Western countries, failed to dislodge Maduro, as have a series of U.S. sanctions against his government. "They tell the armed forces that the soldier who betrays his country and joins the gringos, they are going to award him. It's a lack of respect," Maduro said in a televised speech on Wednesday. Venezuela's pro-government Constituent Assembly has stripped Guaido and eight other opposition legislators of their parliamentary immunity to prosecution following requests by the Supreme Court. The court, which created the Constituent Assembly in 2017 to overrule the National Assembly, would be responsible for signing off on any warrant for an arrest of Guaido, which the Trump administration has said would elicit a harsh response. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court also accused three other lawmakers of committing crimes including conspiracy, rebellion and treason, and asked the Constituent Assembly to determine whether to strip them of their immunity. Guaido in January invoked the constitution to assume an interim presidency, denouncing Maduro as illegitimate after he secured re-election last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent. Maduro accuses Guaido of staging a U.S-backed coup. (Reporting by Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas; Editing by Leslie Adler and Peter Cooney)