Venezuela's Maduro defends rule as legitimate

A man holds a placard reading "Die Tyranny / Long Live Freedom" outside the National Assembly building in Caracas on January 5, 2019 (AFP Photo/Federico PARRA) (AFP/File)
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  • Nicolás Maduro
    Nicolás Maduro
    53rd President of Venezuela

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro defended his government's legitimacy Sunday as his bid for a second six-year term has come under growing fire internationally and by the country's opposition-controlled National Assembly.

But in another sign of turmoil around Maduro, who is to be sworn in Thursday, a Supreme Court judge and former ally appeared on US television to denounce last year's election, having fled the country.

"I have decided to leave Venezuela ... to disavow the government of Nicolas Maduro," Christian Zerpa, who sat on a panel that deals with electoral issues, told EVTV Miami.

"It was not a free election, it was not a competitive election," he said of last year's vote, going on to accuse Maduro of manipulating the court.

News of the Zerpa's defection came a day after the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared Maduro's presidency to be illegitimate and called for a transitional government to organize democratic elections.

Responding on Twitter, Maduro declared: "Legitimacy has been given us by the people with their vote. To those who hope to break our will, make no mistake. Venezuela will be respected!"

Maduro was re-elected May 20 in presidential elections called by a regime-backed Constituent Assembly and boycotted by the opposition, many of whose best-known leaders were under house arrest or barred from running.

The United States, the European Union and a grouping of countries from the Western Hemisphere called the Lima Group have refused to recognize the election.

On Friday, Canada and 12 other Lima Group countries joined in calling for Maduro to step down and open the way for a transitional government formed by leaders of the National Assembly.

The US State Department issued a statement Saturday saying the United States stands with the National Assembly as "the only legitimate and last remaining democratically elected institution that truly represents the will of the Venezuelan people."

On Sunday, the Venezuelan foreign ministry accused Washington of attempting "to consummate a coup d'etat ... in promoting the repudiation of legitimate and democratic institutions."

- Harassment allegations -

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, said it has opened an investigation into Zerpa, over allegations he sexually harassed women who worked in his office.

The Supreme Court said the investigation dates back to November 2018, but it was only made public after the reports that the justice had fled to Florida.

Venezuelan journalists based in the US linked the defection to Maduro's controversial attempt to remain in office for another six years.

Journalist Carla Angola, who said she interviewed Zerpa, reported he was in Florida and was prepared to cooperate with US prosecutors investigating Venezuelan corruption and human rights violations.

Supreme Court president Maikel Moreno charged that Zerpa was the subject of numerous allegations of "indecorous and immoral conduct to the detriment of a group of women."

The Supreme Court statement said he was being investigated for "sexual harassment, lascivious acts and psychological violence" against women in his office.

Moreno denied that the case exposes divisions within the court, which has acted consistently in line with the government.

"Far from separating us, it unites us," he said.

Zerpa was a member of the ruling United Socialist Party (PSUV) and was appointed to the high court in 2015 just days before the opposition assumed the majority in the National Assembly.

He was among a group of Venezuelan officials hit with financial sanctions by Canada, as it moved to put pressure on the Maduro government.

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