The US has slapped new sanctions on eight members of Venezuela's Supreme Court, accusing them of abusing power and damaging their nation's democratic fabric as the Trump administration raises concerns that socialist president Nicolas Maduro is moving toward one-party, authoritarian rule.
Those blacklisted by the Treasury Department include Maikel Moreno, the president of the government-packed Supreme Court, as well as all seven justices who signed a ruling in late March stripping the opposition-controlled congress of its last remaining powers.
The ruling was later partially reversed amid a backlash of international criticism, but it sparked a protest movement that has continued for nearly two months and on Thursday claimed another victim, bringing the death toll to 45.
"The Venezuelan people are suffering from a collapsing economy brought about by their government's mismanagement and corruption. Members of the country's Supreme Court of Justice have exacerbated the situation by consistently interfering with the legislative branch's authority," US Treasury secretary Steven T Mnuchin said.
"By imposing these targeted sanctions, the United States is supporting the Venezuelan people in their efforts to protect and advance democratic governance in their country."
The action marked the second time the Trump administration has stripped high-level Venezuelan officials of their US assets and banned Americans from any business dealings with them. In February, the US ordered sanctions against vice president Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of playing a major role in international drug trafficking.
Earlier on Thursday, Trump expressed dismay about Venezuela's troubles, asking aloud how a nation sitting atop the world's largest oil reserves could be stricken by so much poverty and unrest.
"You sort of have to wonder: Why is that happening? How is that possible? Hopefully that will change and they can use those assets for the good. Because right now what's happening is really a disgrace to humanity," Mr Trump said after meeting at the White House with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos.
Venezuelan foreign minister Delcy Rodriguez called the US sanctions "outrageous and unacceptable." She said that the executive order was one more example of US attempts to interfere and destabilise Mr Maduro's government and that the president strongly backs the Supreme Court magistrates who are "victims of US imperial power".
The new sanctions come as Mr Maduro is facing increasing pressure at home and abroad to hold elections. On Thursday, several thousand demonstrators once again collapsed Caracas and other cities in protests that ended in clashes with security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets. More than 2,000 people have been detained and hundreds injured during almost daily protests.
In the western city of Maracaibo, a 25-year-old was killed when he was crushed by a truck during a protest, the chief prosecutor's office said. Local media said he was a medical student belonging to the so-called "Green Cross," a group of volunteer first-responders that is a fixture at opposition marches
Mr Maduro has vowed to resolve his nation's crisis by convoking a special assembly to rewrite Venezuela's constitution. The opposition rejects that plan as another attempt by the president to tighten his grip on power, and opposition leaders are calling on Venezuelans to continue to take to the streets in protest.
Meanwhile, Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles said his passport was annulled as he attempted to travel to the United Nations to denounce human rights violations by Mr Maduro's government.
Retenido https://t.co/E1GO1dL2D6— Henrique Capriles R. (@hcapriles) May 18, 2017
Mr Capriles posted a video on social media on Thursday from the airport outside Caracas saying the decision to take his passport will not silence his criticism of Mr Maduro.
He said he decided to return to Caracas and join the anti-government protests.