CARACAS (AFP) - Venezuela's Supreme Court said Sunday (Jan 6) a justice who sat on a panel that deals with electoral issues has fled the country, reportedly to Florida.
The high court said it has opened an investigation into the justice, Christian Zerpa, over allegations he sexually harassed women who worked in his office.
But Venezuelan journalists based in the United States linked the defection to President Nicolas Maduro's controversial attempt to be sworn in this week to a second six-year term.
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.
News of the defection came a day after the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared Maduro's presidency to be illegitimate and called for a transitional government to organise democratic elections.
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 recognise 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." .
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.
The Supreme Court said the investigation dates back to November 2018, but it was only made public after the reports of Zerpa's defection.
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 who faced financial sanctions imposed by Canada, as it moved to put pressure on the Maduro government.