EU hits 19 Venezuelans with sanctions over December election

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, February 17, 2021. REUTERS/Fausto Torrealba

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions on 19 senior Venezuelan officials, lawmakers and members of the security forces in response to December's legislative election that the bloc said was rigged in favour of President Nicolas Maduro.

Allies of Maduro won almost all of the legislature's seatsin a vote that was also disavowed by the United States and seen in the West as a way for the president to take control of the only lever of power not already in his grasp.

EU foreign ministers approved the sanctions on Monday, taking the number of Venezuelans blacklisted by the bloc to 55.

Like the United States, the EU has escalated sanctions on Maduro over the past two years, arguing that his 2018 re-election was a sham, though the measures have yet to achieve their stated aim of bringing about new presidential elections.

"The individuals added to the list are responsible ... for undermining the opposition's electoral rights and the democratic functioning of the National Assembly, and for serious violations of human rights and restrictions of fundamental freedoms," the EU said in a statement.

Venezuelan foreign minister Jorge Arreaza said in a statement posted on Twitter that the sanctions were based on "false arguments about honorable citizens". He said it was a sign the EU was frustrated by the ineffectiveness of its actions to force a change of government in Venezuela.

Those sanctioned included two lawmakers of what the EU called the non-democratically elected National Assembly: Bernabe Gutierrez and Jose Brito, who are recognised by Venezuela's government as leaders of two opposition parties.

The parties have disavowed Gutierrez and Brito, saying they are collaborating with the government.

The EU also sanctioned Omar Prieto, governor of the state of Zulia, Remigio Ceballos Ichaso, the armed forces operational commander, and three officials of the Electoral Council, including its president, Indira Maira Alfonzo Izaguirre.

The new travel bans and asset freezes also targeted supreme court justices and marked a toughening of the EU's approach by targeting political leaders who describe themselves as opposition members but are seen as being allied to Maduro.

The West accuses Maduro of human rights abuses, underminingdemocracy and stoking hyperinflation that has dragged the oil-producing Andean nation towards economic collapse.

Maduro says that Venezuela's economic situation is the result of U.S. sanctions that have crippled the OPEC member's oil exports and prevented it from importing fuel.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Nick Macfie and David Clarke)

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