US Congress moves toward new Venezuela sanctions

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Congress is moving closer to imposing economic penalties against Venezuela's government.

State Department officials will brief a Senate committee Thursday on violent street protests that have rocked the country for weeks, and a House panel will finalize its version of a sanctions bill Friday.

The legislation in both chambers is relatively modest. It centers on $15 million in new funds to promote democracy and rule of law in the South American country. It bans visas for Venezuelan officials who crushed anti-government protests by students, opposition leaders and others and freezes their assets.

Venezuela's government intensified its crackdown Thursday.

Hundreds of National Guard members and police broke up four camps maintained by student protesters in Caracas, and arrested 243 people in an early morning raid, according to Venezuela's Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez. He said authorities have evidence that camps were used as a haven for carrying out "terrorist" acts and manufacturing Molotov cocktails and other weapons for use against security forces.

The camps consisting of small tents were installed more than a month ago to protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro, who took office last year in an election to replace his mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a sponsor of the Senate legislation, said the message penalties would carry is most important, coming at a time when human rights groups accuse Venezuelan security officials of arresting, torturing and even killing unarmed demonstrators.

"This is happening in our very own hemisphere," Rubio said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. He said sanctions should target anyone responsible for human rights violations, refusing to rule out Maduro as a potential target. Action now would show the U.S. is "firmly on the side of the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people," he said.

Sanctions are gaining support following the release of a scathing report this week by Human Rights Watch. The group said judges and prosecutors have repeatedly ignored evidence of systematic rights abuses by government forces, citing dozens of protesters who have suffered serious physical and psychological abuse. At least 41 people have died since February, while others have suffered broken bones, denial of medical treatment and threats of rape or death.

At least 10 cases were serious enough to be considered torture, the New York-based organization said. Nearly all the cases it examined involved people who were denied due process, with many held incommunicado and refused access to legal counsel until minutes before they went to court, often in the middle of the night.

Maduro and other officials blame protesters for most of the violence and abuses and say the demonstrations are a coordinated attempt to overthrow the government. The government says 15 officials are being investigated for alleged rights violations, while 200 security force members and officials have been injured and at least nine killed, Human Rights Watch noted.

Rubio, a potential Republican presidential candidate in 2016, shifted his focus to foreign policy after pulling back from an immigration overhaul. He introduced sanctions legislation in the Senate in March, with Democratic Sens. Bill Nelson and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez on Thursday's hearing to study the bill is also partly to persuade the committee's top Republican, Sen. Bob Corker, to back the effort.

Corker has championed tougher U.S. sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine and has sought to block the Obama administration's attempts to roll back sanctions against Iran as part of last year's interim nuclear agreement. He has been more cautious about Venezuela, however.

"With ongoing diplomatic efforts to support dialogue in Venezuela, the committee needs to hear first from the administration about what the U.S. strategy is and how targeted sanctions would help advance that strategy," Corker said last month.

Rubio, of Florida, said ways to best apply economic pressure will be discussed at the hearing.

"We're looking to target individuals in the government or associated with the government," he said. "We're not penalizing the Venezuelan people."

Rubio also has spoken of bringing opposition leaders to testify before the Foreign Relations panel and suggested special temporary U.S. visas for Venezuelans forced to flee.

Legislative efforts in the House are further advanced than in the Senate. The House Foreign Affairs Committee will consider a bill from another Floridian, Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, on Friday.