Venezuelan Supreme Court judge flees to U.S. to protest Maduro's rule

A Venezuelan Supreme Court justice who has been a longtime government loyalist has fled to the United States, saying he's protesting President Nicolas Maduro's upcoming second term.

Christian Zerpa is accusing his country's top court of becoming a tool of the president's inner circle

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro is scheduled to take the oath of office for a new term later this week, but relatively few countries recognize the last election as legitimate. (Ariana Cubillos/Associated Press)

A Venezuelan Supreme Court justice and longtime government loyalist who fled the country for a new life in the United States has called Nicolas Maduro an incompetent president who is leading the once-wealthy country to ruins.

Christian Zerpa's embarrassing defection comes days before Maduro begins his second term amid calls from critics and the international community to relinquish power.

Zerpa accused Venezuela's high court of becoming a tool of Maduro's inner circle, lacking any judicial independence since he and a group of ruling party members were appointed to the bench in 2015.

"Nicolas Maduro doesn't know the constitution and he doesn't know the laws," Zerpa said Monday in a Florida news conference. "This has no other name than a dictatorship."

A once-wealthy oil nation, Venezuela is in the throes of a historic crisis after two decades of socialist rule. Millions have fled, while runaway inflation leaves those remaining behind struggling to afford scarce food and medicine.

Maduro is expected to take his oath of office on Thursday before the country's Supreme Court, launching a second, six-year term. Political opponents and many foreign nations consider it illegitimate, saying his re-election in May was a sham because popular opponents were banned from running and the largest anti-government parties boycotted the race.

'Incompetent'

Zerpa said that he fled with his family to Florida because he didn't want to play a role legitimizing Maduro's rule. Relatives staying behind have since been visited by Venezuela's intelligence police, he said.

"Maduro is incompetent," Zerpa said. "The country and its public companies are in ruins."

In far-reaching comments, Zerpa said the military lacks a national conscience for allowing Maduro stay in power and accused Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno of having ties with drug traffickers.

Zerpa didn't provide evidence, but said he's ready to co-operate with a sweeping U.S. investigation into corruption and human rights abuses among Venezuela's well-connected.

Zerpa was interviewed by Miami-based EVTV:

Moreno, a Maduro loyalist, said Sunday that Zerpa fled Venezuela to escape allegations of sexual harassment lodged by women in his office. Zerpa denied Moreno's claims.

Zerpa surfaced publicly Sunday in Miami, describing how he received directions from the influential first lady Cilia Flores on how to rule in politically sensitive cases.

As a newly installed justice, he recounted being summoned to the court and told to sign off on a key ruling without first reviewing its details. It disqualified three elected representatives from taking their seats in congress following the opposition's sweep of legislative elections in 2015, and cemented Maduro's power by preventing the opposition from amassing a two-thirds super majority that would have severely curtailed the leader's power.

Zerpa apologized for propping up Maduro's government as long as he did, saying that he feared being jailed as a dissident where his life would be put at risk.

"I will not be able to return to Venezuela," Zerpa said. "I am a dead man."

Vowing to battle Maduro

Zerpa is among the top Venezuelan officials who have been sanctioned by Canada, but he has not been targeted by U.S. authorities, who accuse dozens in Maduro's administration of using their power for personal gain.

Pressure has been mounting against Maduro internationally and from his political opponents still inside Venezuela.

A dozen Latin American governments and Canada delivered a blistering rebuke on Friday, rejecting the legitimacy of Maduro's second term and urging him to hand over power as the only path to restoring democracy.

The opposition-led congress on Saturday opened its session for the year vowing to battle against Maduro's socialist administration.

Maduro said he intends to take the oath despite his critics and press ahead with the socialist revolution, promising a turnaround of the failing economy.

"The revolution is stronger today than ever, more experienced than ever, to defend the sovereignty of the country," he said. "Venezuelans have the opportunity to enjoy 2019 as a year of prosperity and progress."