US adds Venezuela foreign minister to sanctions target list

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — The United States on Friday added Venezuela’s foreign minister and a judge who has ruled against Venezuelan opposition figures to a sanctions list aimed at forcing a change of government in the South American country.

The U.S. Treasury Department sanctions targeted Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and Judge Carol Padilla, freezing any assets they have in the U.S. and barring American citizens or entities from financial dealings with them.

They join a growing list of Venezuelan officials designated for U.S. sanctions as Washington increases pressure on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whose power struggle with U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó has entered its fourth month.

Arreaza and Padilla are being held accountable for enabling “Maduro’s corruption and human rights abuses,” said John Bolton, White House national security adviser.

Arreaza tweeted that the sanctions are a desperate measure that show the Venezuelan government is on “the right path.”

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The foreign minister has represented Maduro’s government at the United Nations amid the deep political and economic crisis in Venezuela, whose shrinking oil industry is also under U.S. sanctions.

As Maduro’s top diplomat, Arreaza has traveled widely to try to drum up support for his embattled government, meeting officials from key ally Russia and visiting Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. He has sometimes faced walkouts by diplomats at international gatherings who say Maduro should quit.

Padilla, the judge who was sanctioned, is responsible for the jailing opposition lawmaker Juan Requesens last year for allegedly being part of a plot to assassinate Maduro. She’s also reportedly was the judge who jailed Guaidó’s chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, in March.

The U.S. and more than 50 other governments view Maduro’s re-election last year as illegitimate and have recognized Guaidó as interim president until new elections can be held.

In Caracas on Friday, Venezuelan police detained a substitute member of the opposition-controlled National Assembly who had been arrested in the past for allegedly plotting against the government. Authorities have not commented on the detention of Gilber Caro at a restaurant.

Guaidó, who rallied supporters in the Venezuelan city of Maracay on Friday, condemned Caro’s arrest as a violation of parliamentary immunity. Some legislators have substitute lawmakers who stand in for them if they can’t attend a session.

Maduro has accused Guaidó of sabotage and plotting a coup. But he has not moved to arrest the National Assembly leader, apparently aware that such a step could invite a backlash in the streets from opposition supporters or harsher action from the United States.

In another development, a U.S. citizen detained during unrest in Venezuela in 2014 was freed Thursday. Todd Leininger, 37, was arrested after allegedly aiding the opposition during anti-government protests. His family said he didn’t commit any crime.

The U.S. State Department called Leininger’s release “overdue,” noting a Venezuelan court ordered him freed in November.

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The Florida native is one of several Americans imprisoned in Venezuela as the political and economic crisis deepened.

Joshua Holt was released in 2018 after being held for over two years on weapons charges that his family says were bogus. Five U.S. citizens who are executives with Houston-based Citgo, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, remain detained.

Cristina Vadell, daughter of Tomeu Vadell, a Citgo employees detained for over a year, said Leininger’s release was “encouraging” but noted the preliminary hearing of the Citgo executives was deferred on Friday for the 15th time.

“We continue demanding for their release,” she said.

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Associated Press writer Ben Fox contributed from Washington.

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