EU to hit seven more Venezuelan officials with sanctions for torture

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will impose economic sanctions on another seven people close to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Friday, three EU diplomats said, in a decision that may disappoint opposition leaders looking for sweeping action.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro attends a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia September 25, 2019. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS

The move is the first time in almost a year that the EU has widened its travel bans and asset freezes to more people close to Maduro. The bloc until now has instead sought to help mediate peace talks with Norway and Latin American countries.

“A decision to add seven new people has been taken,” one EU diplomat said, following a meeting of EU ambassadors. Two other diplomats confirmed the sanctions, saying they were linked to torture.

No further details were immediately available but one diplomatic source said the seven Venezuelan officials were deemed responsible for the abduction of Venezuelan naval commandant Rafael Acosta, who died in military custody in June. Relatives say he was tortured to death.

EU ambassadors took their decision on Wednesday and the sanctions were approved on Thursday, diplomats said, taking the number of Venezuelans under EU “restrictive measures” to 25. The European Union imposed an arms embargo in November 2017.

Washington has been urging the European Union to take a tougher stance on Maduro, who France, the United States and several Latin American nations accuse of installing a dictatorship as a political and economic crisis deepens in Venezuela.

U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela Elliott Abrams, in Brussels this month to meet EU officials, told reporters he “asked the EU to join us in keeping the pressure” on Maduro’s government because “they don’t want to give up power.”

Under Maduro, Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven oil reserves but suffers hyperinflation, chronic food shortages and has seen mass migration to neighboring countries, has slid toward authoritarianism and a ruined economy.

The United Nations has estimated the number of Venezuelan migrants abroad is currently 4 million.

Like the United States, most of the European Union has publicly backed Venezuelan opposition politician Juan Guaido as the man to help restore democracy. Maduro is accused of human rights violations and rigging the 2018 presidential election.

However, much of the EU’s diplomacy has been focused on trying to agree a negotiated end to the crisis and move toward a timetable for new presidential elections, so far to no avail.

Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Angus MacSwan