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U.S. hits 7 Venezuela officials with sanctions

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama slapped sanctions on seven Venezuelan officials Monday, accusing them of perpetrating human rights violations and public corruption in the socialist-governed South American nation.

The individuals all come from the top echelon of the state security apparatus that was responsible for cracking down on anti-government protests that rocked Venezuela last year and for pursuing charges against leading opponents.

"Corrupt actions by Venezuelan government officials deprive Venezuela of needed economic resources that could be invested in the Venezuelan people and used to spur economic growth," Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said in a statement. "These actions also undermine the public trust in democratic institutions and the human rights to which Venezuelan citizens are entitled."

The sanctions come after the U.S. Congress passed legislation late last year authorizing penalties that would freeze the assets and ban visas for anyone accused of carrying out acts of violence or violating the human rights of those opposing the Venezuela's government.

Asked about the sanctions, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez told The Associated Press that her country will insist on a relationship with the U.S. that is "based on respect and sovereign equality."

Tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela have been on the rise.

Last summer, the State Department imposed a travel ban on Venezuelan officials accused of abuses during street protests that left dozens of people dead. And last week, Venezuela gave the U.S. two weeks to slash its diplomatic mission there to less than 20 percent of its current size. The U.S., in turn, has criticized Venezuela for its anti-American rhetoric.

Still, the U.S. maintains deep economic ties with Venezuela, particularly its energy sector. According to a 2013 State Department fact sheet, Venezuela was one of the top five suppliers of foreign oil to the U.S.

Support for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's socialist administration has fallen off sharply as the oil-rich economy has plunged deeper into crisis marked by widespread shortages and inflation over 60 percent. The president's approval rating in January stood at 22 percent, the lowest since the revolution started by the late President Hugo Chavez in 1999.

The list includes close allies of Chavez. Manuel Gregorio Bernal Martínez, who was head of Venezuela's intelligence service during the protest movement that swept Venezuela last year, participated in Chavez's 1992 coup attempt. The failed plot launched Chavez into national limelight and cemented the bona fides of his co-conspirers.

The sanctioned officials also include former members of Venezuela's Bolivarian National Guard, known as the GNB. The White House says GNB members have engaged in "significant acts of violence or conduct that constitutes a serious abuse or violation of human rights."

"In various cities in Venezuela, members of the GNB used force against peaceful protestors and journalists, including severe physical violence, sexual assault, and firearms," the White House said in a fact sheet on the sanctions.

The seven sanctioned officials are:

-Antonio José Benavides Torres, commander in Venezuela's Bolivarian National Armed Forces and former GNB operations director

-Gustavo Enrique González López, director general of Venezuela's Bolivarian National Intelligence Service. The U.S. says he is responsible for or complicit in acts of violence and other human rights abuses against anti-government protestors. He was also associated with the surveillance of Venezuelan opposition leaders.

-Justo José Noguera Pietri, president of the Venezuelan Corporation of Guayana a state-owned entity, and former GNB general commander.

-Katherine Nayarith Haringhton Padron: national level prosecutor of who has charged several opposition members with conspiracy related to alleged assassination and coup attempts using what the U.S. says were "implausible - and in some cases fabricated - information."

-Manuel Eduardo Pérez Urdaneta, director of Venezuela's Bolivarian National Police. The U.S. says the policy force has engaged in "significant acts of violence or conduct that constitutes a serious abuse or violation of human rights."

-Manuel Gregorio Bernal Martínez : chief of the 31st Armored Brigade of Caracas of Venezuela's Bolivarian Army and former director general of national intelligence services. He was intelligence chief on Feb. 12, 2014, when officials fired their weapons on protestors killing two individuals near the Attorney General's Office.

- Miguel Alcides Vivas Landino, inspector general of Venezuela's Bolivarian National Armed Forces.

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