The United States has issued a fresh warning to Venezuela after imposing sanctions on President Nicolás Maduro, saying it holds him “personally responsible” for the health and safety of two jailed opposition leaders.
In a statement released by the White House late on Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump condemned “the actions of the Maduro dictatorship” and said Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma were political prisoners held illegally by the Venezuelan government.
“The United States holds Maduro – who publicly announced just hours earlier that he would move against his political opposition – personally responsible for the health and safety of Mr. Lopez, Mr. Ledezma, and any others seized,” Trump said.
Earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the arrests “very alarming”. Washington already imposed sanctions on Maduro on Monday, freezing all of Maduro’s assets subject to U.S. jurisdiction and barring Americans from doing business with him.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCR) weighed in from Geneva.
“There are many reports that excessive force has been used in the context of demonstrations,” said OHCR spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani.
“We also have reports that they (security officials) have conducted house to house raids, and taken people and detained them. We are calling on the government to refrain from taking any further steps, to make an already bad situation even worse.”
CCTV footage and amateur video appeared to show intelligence services raiding the homes of Lopez and Ledezma before dawn on Tuesday.
Both men had called on Venezuelans to boycott Sunday’s election of a special assembly with power to rewrite the constitution. They are believed to have been taken to a military jail.
Venezuela’s pro-government Supreme Court has said Lopez and Ledezma were planning to flee the country and had violated terms of their house arrest by making political statements and speaking to media.
Maduro says the constituent assembly was designed to restore peace to Venezuela. About 120 people have been killed in more than four months of anti-government street protests, including at least 10 during Sunday’s vote.
In addition to rewriting the constitution, the legislative superbody will have the power to dissolve the opposition-led congress, eliminating any institutional check on Maduro’s powers.
A protest rally has been pushed back and is now scheduled for Thursday, when the new constituent assembly is expected to convene, said Freddy Guevara, a legislator in the Popular Will party led by Lopez.
To sanction or not to sanction
The US Congress, meanwhile, is mulling possible additional sanctions aimed at changing Maduro’s course.
Senator Ben Cardin, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said punitive economic measures targeting the country’s vital oil sector may be needed.
The United States is Venezuela’s biggest importer of crude oil.
However, actions targeting the country’s oil resources would likely further hurt a nation already suffering from economic recession, food shortages and the world’s highest inflation rate.
“Our objective needs to be to help the people of Venezuela through this extremely dangerous humanitarian crisis … and ultimately to get Venezuela back on a democratic path,” Cardin said.
Over the past four months, Maduro has faced nearly daily protests demanding freedom for jailed politicians, early elections and the entry of humanitarian aid such as food and medicines.