Venezuela Supreme Court judge flees to US to protest Maduro

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - 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 said Sunday that Venezuela's high court has become an appendage of Maduro's inner circle since he and a group of ruling party members were appointed to the bench in 2015.

"We are in the presence of an autocracy that has condemned to death anyone who opposes this particular vision of power," Zerpa told Miami-based broadcaster EVTV.

He said the government "has only brought hunger, misery and destruction to the country."

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.

Zerpa said that he fled with his family because he didn't want to play a role legitimizing Maduro's rule when the Supreme Court swears him in for a second term this week.

Supreme Court chief justice Maikel Moreno, a Maduro loyalist, said Sunday that Zerpa fled to escape allegations of sexual harassment charges lodged by women in his office.

Zerpa said that he is now willing to collaborate with U.S. officials investigating corruption and human rights abuses.

He is among the top Venezuelan officials who have been sanctioned by Canada.

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 of Maduro on Friday, rejecting the legitimacy of his 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 says 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."