The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday imposed sanctions on eight Venezuelan Supreme Court judges who it accused of being involved in rulings "that have usurped the authority of Venezuela's democratically-elected legislature, the National Assembly."
The sanctions include freezing of all their U.S. assets as well as suspension of U.S. travel visas. U.S. citizens are also banned from doing business with them.
"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," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a press release.
"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 added.
Venezuela is in the midst of a deepening political and economic crisis after a month of violent street protests calling for Maduro's ouster and new elections. The protests have claimed more than 40 lives and resulted in more than 1,000 arrests, according to human rights groups.
In a conference call with reporters, three senior U.S. officials said they could not discuss what kinds of assets might be caught in the sanctions. It is not clear if any of the judges have property or bank accounts in the United States, or family ties. They warned that Thursday's sanctions were a warning to other Venezuelan officials who might be targeted in the future.
One former senior U.S. government official, Roger Noriega, blasted the announcement on twitter as futile and describing the eight as "a bunch of creeps with no money here."
The officials repeated calls by the U.S. government for Maduro to respect the Venezuelan constitution, hold immediate elections, and release all political prisoners.
"He must stop using violence against his own people," said one of the senior U.S. officials. "President Trump has made it clear that the United States will not tolerate the bad actors that exist in Venezuela under President Maduro. The message is that those folks should be on the lookout for further actions ... until they change their ways," he added.
The eight officials are the President of the court Maikel Jose Moreno Perez, and the seven principal members of its Constitutional Chamber: Juan Jose Mendoza Jover: Arcadio de Jesus Delgado Rosales; Gladys Maria Gutierrez Alvarado; Carmen Auxiliadora Zuleta de Merchan; Luis Fernando Damiani Bustillos; Lourdes Benicia Suarez Anderson; and Calixto Antonio Ortega Rios.
"They have contributed to a rupture of democratic norms. They have made a mockery of the separation of powers and they have denied the Venezuelan people the right to shape their country's future through their elected representatives," according to one of the senior U.S. officials.
The sanctions build on several previous measures against top political and military officials in Venezuela, dating back to 2015.
In February the U.S. Treasury Department blocked the U.S. assets of Venezuela's vice president Tarek El Aissami, which officials have estimated at several hundred million dollars.
Earlier this month a senior U.S. State Department official warned that the Trump administration was considering new sanctions targeting local government officials in the oil-rich South American country. That came after Maduro used his presidential power to decree the setting up of a new, seemingly hand-picked Constituent Assembly to replace the current National Assembly which is dominated by opposition political parties.
Opposition leaders have denounced Maduro's call for a new constitution as a "giant fraud" designed to keep the president in power and deny Venezuelans the right to express their views through elections.
In a press release the Treasury Department said the eight judges were responsible for "a number of rulings that interfere with or limit the National Assembly's authority." That included a decision in October 2016 which declared that the Venezuelan executive branch was exempt from submitting the budget to the National Assembly, as required by the constitution. In multiple rulings issued between July 2016 and January 2017, the court, instead of the National Assembly, "has repeatedly renewed an extension of a state of emergency," it added.
Another decision in late March stripped parliamentary immunity from members of the National Assembly and allowed the court to assume the legislative role. Although that was later reversed the court decisions "show a long-term effort to negate the authority of the legislative branch and subvert the will of the Venezuelan people," the Treasury Department said.