Former Venezuela Supreme Court judge flees to U.S., denounces Maduro

CARACAS (Reuters) - Former Venezuelan Supreme Court Justice Christian Zerpa has fled to the United States to protest President Nicolas Maduro’s second term that will begin with his inauguration this week, the onetime Maduro backer told a Miami broadcaster on Sunday.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro pauses as he speaks during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The latest defection from the crisis-stricken OPEC nation’s government comes amid growing international pressure on Maduro over his new term, which resulted from a broadly boycotted 2018 vote dismissed by countries around the world as a sham.

“I’ve decided to leave Venezuela to disavow the government of Nicolas Maduro,” Zerpa said in an interview with EVTV, which is broadcast over cable and the internet.

“I believe (Maduro) does not deserve a second chance because the election he supposedly won was not free and competitive.”

The Supreme Court confirmed in a statement that he had fled, referring to him as a former magistrate and adding it opened an investigation of him in November over accusations of sexual harassment by women in his office. The court’s leadership recommended that he be dismissed over the allegations, it said, without providing details.

Zerpa was for years a crucial ally of Maduro on the Supreme Court, which has backed the ruling Socialist Party in every major legal dispute since Maduro’s 2013 election.

He wrote a 2016 ruling that provided the legal justification for Maduro’s government to strip congress of most of its powers after the Socialist Party lost control of the body to the opposition in a landslide election.

Zerpa in the interview described the Supreme Court as “an appendage of the executive branch,” and said that justices were at times summoned to the presidential palace to receive instructions on how to rule on certain sensitive cases.

The Information Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zerpa said he did not criticize Maduro’s May 2018 election to make sure he could pave the way for a safe exit from the country in the company of his family.

Opposition leaders have urged foreign governments not to recognize Maduro after his inauguration on Thursday, and a group of Latin American nations on Friday called on Maduro not to take office.

But diplomats consulted by Reuters said few countries were likely to shutter embassies or sever ties with Venezuela.

Zerpa’s words echoed those of former Justice Eladio Aponte, who fled to the United States in 2012 and said the government of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez - Maduro’s predecessor - systematically manipulated court affairs.