The Senate has passed legislation that would direct President Barack Obama to levy sanctions against Venezuelan government officials or others accused of perpetrating acts of violence or human rights abuses of anti-government demonstrators.
The bill, passed in a voice vote on Monday evening, authorizes sanctions that would freeze the assets and ban visas of individuals involved in violating the human rights of those opposing the South American country's socialist government. During the summer, the State Department imposed a travel ban on Venezuelan officials accused of abuses during a months-long street protest movement in the winter and spring that left dozens of people dead.
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"For too long, Venezuelans have faced state-sponsored violence at the hands of government security forces and watched their country's judiciary become a tool of political repression," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the author of the bipartisan Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act.
Last week, a leading opposition figure, Maria Corina Machado, learned that she was being charged with conspiracy in connection with an alleged plot to kill President Nicolas Maduro, a move she called an attempt to silence her and other critics of the government. Together with fellow opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, Machado called tens of thousands of demonstrators into the streets to protest the government earlier this year. Lopez was arrested nine months ago for his role in the sometimes violent protests. He turned himself in during an emotional public event.
"Venezuelan leaders like Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado have become the target of vicious government-led campaigns that seek to silence them for speaking out in defense of democracy and the rule of law," Menendez said in a statement. "We in the United States have an obligation to shine a bright spotlight on Venezuela's abuses and must object to the severe human rights violations committed by the Maduro government and his paramilitary thugs."
In Venezuela, Maduro rejected the Senate's vote.
In a message broadcast on national television and radio, the socialist leader called on Washington to stop "the aggressions, interventions — enough with all the abuses."
"Desperate as they are, they want to challenge Venezuela with sanctions and threats. I think that if President Obama imposes the insanity of sanctions, things are going to turn out very badly for them," Maduro said.
The House passed the bill in May; it must still be reconciled with the Senate version.