BOGOTA, Colombia — The U.S. has slapped new sanctions on eight members of Venezuela's Supreme Court, accusing them of abusing power and damaging their nation's democratic fabric as the Trump administration raises concerns that socialist President Nicolas Maduro is moving toward one-party, authoritarian rule.
Those blacklisted by the Treasury Department include Maikel Moreno, the president of the government-packed Supreme Court, as well as all seven justices who signed a ruling in late March stripping the opposition-controlled congress of its last remaining powers.
The ruling was later partially reversed amid a backlash of international criticism, but it sparked a protest movement that has continued for nearly two months and on Thursday claimed another victim, bringing the death toll to 45.
"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 T. Mnuchin said. "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."
The action marked second time the Trump administration has stripped high-level Venezuelan officials of their U.S. assets and banned Americans from any business dealings with them. In February, the U.S. ordered sanctions against Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of playing a major role in international drug trafficking.
Earlier Thursday, Trump expressed dismay about Venezuela's troubles, asking aloud how a nation sitting atop the world's largest oil reserves could be stricken by so much poverty and unrest.
"You sort of have to wonder: Why is that happening? How is that possible? Hopefully that will change and they can use those assets for the good. Because right now what's happening is really a disgrace to humanity," Trump said after meeting at the White House with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
Venezuela's Supreme Court has long been filled with government loyalists, some of dubious legal qualifications.
Moreno first gained notoriety as an attorney defending a group of supporters of then-President Hugo Chavez who fired into a crowd during a 2002 coup attempt. He was later accused by an exiled Supreme Court magistrate of belonging to the so-called "Band of Dwarf Judges" that worked hand in glove with top administration officials to manipulate cases. In 2006, he was removed from a lower court bench but later named to a diplomatic post in Rome.
Another sanctioned magistrate, Calixto Ortega, is a long-time diplomat who was sent by Maduro in 2014 to Aruba to negotiate the release of a retired army general who had been arrested on a U.S. drug warrant. He was named to the Supreme Court after losing a race for congress in 2015 congressional elections that the opposition won by a landslide.
The judges' devotion to the government is indisputable. The court's constitutional chamber declared null and void eight National Assembly laws between January and October 2016, after just one such ruling in the previous 200 years, legal experts say.
In issuing its sanctions ruling, the U.S. Treasury Department cited several court rulings since the opposition gained control of congress. One was the approval of Maduro's budget and his appointment of two government sympathizers to the National Electoral Council, decisions that are supposed to require National Assembly approval. Another was a ruling a year ago declaring null all acts of the National Assembly issued while it remains in contempt of an earlier ruling requiring the congress to unseat three elected lawmakers over still-unproven allegations of voting fraud.
Moreno, while not directly involved in those decisions, has defended them and from the bench also upheld a nearly 14-year sentence against opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez a day after Trump called for his release at a White House meeting with his wife.
There was no immediate reaction from the Maduro government, but in the past it has disputed that the country's justice system is politicized. Maduro has said he had no prior knowledge of the Supreme Court ruling against congress in March, pointing to the objections raised by Venezuela's chief prosecutor as proof the country's institutions operate independently.
The new sanctions come as Maduro is facing increasing pressure at home and abroad to hold elections. On Thursday, several thousand demonstrators once again collapsed Caracas and other cities in protests that ended in clashes with security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets. More than 2,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured during almost daily protests.
In the western city of Maracaibo, a 25-year-old was killed when he was crushed by a truck during a protest, the chief prosecutor's office said. Local media said he was a medical student belonging to the so-called "Green Cross," a group of volunteer first-responders that is a fixture at opposition marches
On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council discussed the crisis in Venezuela for the first time at the request of the United States. The foreign ministers of Latin America are also gathering in two weeks in Washington for a special meeting on the South American nation's troubles.
Maduro has vowed to resolve his nation's crisis by convoking a special assembly to rewrite Venezuela's constitution. The opposition rejects that plan as another attempt by the president to tighten his grip on power, and opposition leaders are calling on Venezuelans to continue to take to the streets in protest.
"We've made it clear to Maduro and his thugs that their actions are not going to go unpunished," Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the main congressional backer of Trump's hardened stance toward Maduro, said of the sanctions. "This announcement should be encouraging to the people of Venezuela that they are not alone."