Venezuelan government officials who appear to have some involvement in human rights abuses against protesters are banned from traveling to the United States, the U.S. State Department announced Wednesday.
Deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf says in a statement that the move "underscores our commitment to holding accountable individuals who commit human rights abuses."
In announcing the visa restrictions, the department said that in recent months Venezuela "has witnessed large-scale protests." It said the government in Caracas has responded to street protests in many instances with "arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force."
The department also said that it would not publicly identify individuals considered to be committing abuses against citizens, citing confidentiality rules surrounding visa processing.
Harf said the department is emphasizing that the action taken Wednesday is "specific and targeted."
Violent street protests erupted in February and lasted for several weeks, ending in the deaths of dozens of anti-government activists and the jailing of many others.
Opposition groups said that the administration of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was behind many of the violent attacks on the protesters.
Many members of Congress called on the administration to sanction Venezuela by imposing economic sanctions that include a ban on travel to the U.S. by Venezuelan officials complicit in human rights abuses, and freezing their assets.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a sponsor of legislation calling for sanctions against Venezuela, called the travel ban an important "first step."
“The U.S. government should use every tool at our disposal to hold the Maduro regime accountable for its human rights violations,” said Rubio in a statement. “The Obama Administration has taken an important first step by announcing visa bans that would restrict the travel of human rights violators and their families to the U.S. This action should be followed up with asset freezes as well.
Rubio, R-Fla., repeatedly has said that sanctions would carry an important message to Venezuelan officials in response to reports of arrests, torture and even killing of unarmed demonstrators. He passed a bill proposing sanctions against Venezuela with New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez and Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, both Democrats.
“The House has passed a Venezuela bill, and the sanctions bill I’ve introduced with Senators Menendez and Nelson remains the most comprehensive plan that exists in the Senate to punish human rights violators and support the democratic aspirations of the Venezuelan people,” added Rubio. “I’m pleased the administration has heeded my calls to take initial action. I hope the Senate soon passes legislation that deals with the situation in Venezuela in a more complete manner, and I will continue pressing the administration to do more.”
Sanctions gained support following the release of a scathing report earlier this year 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. Dozens of 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.
In recent days, members of Congress including senators Rubio, Menendez and Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry pushing for sanctions.
“Although street protests have been less visible in recent months, the total number of demonstrations in the country now exceeds 6,000 in 2014 and more than 100 political prisoners remain in jail,” the letter said. “The government has unlawfully removed opposition legislators and mayors from office. And, to date, not one Venezuelan government official or member of the security forces has been held accountable for the human rights abuses committed since the start of the year.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.