Top Venezuelan judge blasts US for threats of more sanctions

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – The head of Venezuela’s top court on Wednesday rejected a U.S. threat to apply sanctions to all its judges, accusing the Trump administration of trying to manipulate the crisis-wracked nation’s justice system and foment a coup.

Maikel Moreno, president of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, pushed back at comments by Vice President Mike Pence, who said the U.S. would extend sanctions to all members of the Venezuelan high court if they continue to be a “political tool” of President Nicolás Maduro.

“This unlawful, despicable and intolerable action violates the norms and principles of international law that govern relations between civilized nations,” Moreno, a political ally of the Maduro, said in a nationally broadcast TV appearance. Moreno already faces U.S. sanctions.

The oil-rich nation is locked in a political struggle between socialist President Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who is backed by the United States and more than 50 other nations.

Tensions peaked last week when Guaidó sought to instigate a military uprising outside a Caracas air base that sparked two days of deadly protests in clashes between backers of the opposition leader and security forces loyal to Maduro, who remains in power.

Guaidó on Wednesday took to the streets of at least two coastal communities outside the capital of Caracas to keep up momentum among Venezuelans. He met supporters in his hometown of La Guaira and surrounding communities, where he was greeted by cheering neighborhood groups, hugs and fist bumps.

More than 3 million Venezuelans have left their homeland in recent years amid skyrocketing inflation and shortages of food and medicine. Pence and other Trump administration officials blame Maduro’s failed policies, warning that 2 million more are expected to flee by the end of the year if the nation’s crisis continues.

The high court announced Wednesday that it has opened legal proceedings against three additional opposition lawmakers accused of supporting the military uprising, bringing the total to nine accused of “betraying the homeland” and “instigating an insurrection.”

In his speech a day earlier, Pence said the U.S. would extend sanctions to all 25 members of Venezuela’s Supreme Court if they continue to prop up Maduro. The U.S. already has sanctions on about 150 officials and businesses in the country.

Foreign Affairs Minister Jorge Arreaza in a recent trip to Moscow said the United States has illegally appropriated at least $4 billion in Venezuelan assets in the guise of financial sanctions.

U.S. officials say they are targeting Maduro’s inner circle, who have raided the nation’s coffers.

Arreaza says that in one case the move stifled bank transfers to pay for 26 life-saving bone marrow transplants for Venezuelans awaiting care in Italy.

“What it has generated is suffering by the Venezuelan people,” said Arreaza, the official most recently sanctioned on April 26. “It’s criminal what the government of the United States is doing.”

The U.S. lifted sanctions on a top Venezuelan general who broke ranks with Maduro, trying to help the opposition regain momentum in the face of a government crackdown following last week’s failed uprising.

Pence said the immediate lifting of financial sanctions for Gen. Manuel Figuera, who was Venezuela’s spy chief, is intended to encourage others in the military to abandon their support for Maduro.

The move was a display of “good faith” designed to elicit “concrete and meaningful actions to restore democratic order” by dozens of other sanctioned Venezuelan insiders, the Treasury Department said in a statement.

Figuera was the sole regime insider to defy Maduro during the uprising, although the White House contends several others, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, had had been in talks for weeks with the opposition to oust Maduro but backed away from the plan at the last minute.

As the U.S. looked to lure the Venezuelan military, Maduro and his allies started going after opponents who supported the uprising.

Maduro on Wednesday discharged Figuera from service along with 55 other soldiers accused of taking part in Guaido’s failed uprising.

Also among them was National Guard Lt. Col. Illich Sanchez, who oversaw protection to the opposition-controlled National Assembly accompanied Guaidó to the outskirts of the air base where some rebel soldiers clashed with security forces loyal to Maduro.

Maduro has fallen under increasing international pressure after being elected last year to a second six-year term that critics say was rigged. Russia, China and Cuba, among other countries, support Maduro.

Maduro says he is the target of a U.S.-engineered coup plot and has denounced the Guaidó-led congress, instead recognizing a rival assembly packed with government loyalists set up in 2017.

In early April, the government-backed National Constituent Assembly voted to strip Guaidó of his parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Maduro, however, has not moved to detain Guaidó, possibly reflecting wariness over a likely backlash from the United States and its allies.

Maduro harshly criticized the Trump administration in a televised speech Wednesday, saying its offer to lift sanctions against members of the armed forces who turn against his government is an “assault on their honor and dignity.”

“Donald Trump is racist and surrounded by crazies,” Maduro said, adding that the U.S. president’s administration plan remove him from power will fail.

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Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez and Jorge Rueda contributed to this report.

A pedestrian looks to cross an avenue backdropped by a wall relief of Venezuelan hero Simon Bolivar, just outside of the Supreme Court building, in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, May 8, 2019. Supreme Court Justice Moreno spoke Wednesday following U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s remarks that the U.S. would extend sanctions to all members of the Venezuelan court if they continue to be a “political tool” of President Nicolás Maduro. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
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