The day after his appointment to Venezuela’s supreme court, Miguel Angel Martin learned that another newly named judge had been arrested by the government’s intelligence service agents.
The arrested judge, Angel Zerpa, faced charges of treason.
Martin, Zerpa and 31 other judges had been appointed by the opposition-led National Assembly, which said the existing high court was illegally stacked with judges loyal to authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro.
Almost immediately, chaos ensued. The supreme court backed by Maduro ordered that a military tribunal try all the new judges for treason.
Fearing bodily harm, Martin, his wife, their 23-year-old son and their two teenage daughters went into hiding within hours of his colleague’s arrest in July 2017.
“I thought of my family, of my wife, my kids, my parents, my brothers — of my life too, of course,” Martin said in a recent interview. “In Venezuela, they torture people, they cause a lot of harm to people.”
Martin and many of the other judges made their way from safe houses and embassies in Venezuela to locations outside their homeland. Most did not drop their positions on the supreme court and have created what they describe as a court in exile while the Maduro government backs the court in Caracas.
The judges watched Venezuela closely in recent days as opposition leader Juan Guaido called on the country’s armed forces to abandon Maduro, ready to return to Caracas if the government changed hands. But Maduro remained in power.
“I can’t tell you how this will end,” said José Sabino Zamora, a judge who is living in Panama.
Zamora says the case against the judges has been suspended while they are outside the country. Proceedings against Zerpa, who is still in Venezuela, continue before a nonmilitary tribunal.
Martin settled in Coral Gables, Fla., and is the president of the court, which consists of 24 other judges who fled to the United States, Colombia, Chile and Panama. They meet weekly via Skype and issue judgments that they say identify unconstitutional actions by Maduro’s government.
“Dictatorships always use judgments or laws to hide their regimes,” Martin said. “We have removed the mantle of legality.”
Representatives of the court in Caracas did not respond to requests for comment.
In the meantime, many of the 32 million people in Venezuela live in extreme conditions with limited food, medicine and basic goods. Millions have fled the country, which has seen rising levels of maternal and infant mortality. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has announced it plans to begin distributing aid to more than half a million people.
The judges on Martin’s court, which is recognized by the 35-country Organization of American States, are focused on supporting Guaido, who in January announced he was Venezuela’s interim president and quickly gained support from the U.S. and other nations. The judges say their rulings establish the judicial foundation needed for a transition to a government not led by Maduro.
Since they left, the judges have waited for the president’s ouster to return home. In February, the National Assembly passed a statute holding it would recognize the court’s judges in a democratic transition.
But Maduro, who succeeded Chavez after his death in 2013 and continued his socialist agenda, shows no sign of ceding authority despite more than 50 countries saying they favor Guaido.
He directly opposed the National Assembly’s 2017 appointments to the Supreme Court. Two days after the judges were sworn in, Maduro declared the appointments illegal, announcing in a televised broadcast that all of the judges “are going to be detained, one by one … and all of them will have their assets, accounts and everything frozen.”
Benjamin Gedan, a Latin America expert at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, said the court was an important resource for the international coalition supporting Guaido.
“Most observers of Venezuela are not constitutional scholars,” Gedan said. “Here you have these justices who are appointed by the only legitimate democratic organ of the Venezuelan government still operating [the National Assembly] who are making legal analyses.”
The court bases its decisions on public international law and the Venezuelan Constitution.
Last August, it sentenced Maduro to 18 years and three months in prison on counts linked to Brazil’s Odebrecht corruption scandal, involving a construction giant whose officials have confessed to paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for public works contracts. The month before, the court had declared his position as president vacant, insisting that the National Assembly fill it.
In an absentee trial for Maduro, Venezuela’s former chief prosecutor, Luisa Ortega Díaz, accused the president of receiving $35 million in bribes. Interpol, the judges say, has not responded to a request for an alert for his arrest.
The court is among other opposition-led branches of government — the executive and the legislative — that exist with international recognition but little power alongside parallel pro-Maduro institutions. Its trajectory began in December 2015, when the outgoing National Assembly packed the supreme court with more than 30 primary and alternate judges days before turning over legislative power to the opposition.
The Maduro-backed supreme court eventually declared the National Assembly in contempt and its actions void. It approved the transfer of legislative powers from the assembly to Maduro, which sparked a wave of street protests that left more than 150 people dead and thousands injured.
Asdrubal Aguiar, Venezuela’s interior minister during the late 1990s, said in an interview that Martin’s court predicament was similar to that of the opposition-led National Assembly, whose power was dissolved in 2017 by a new assembly Maduro created in a disputed election.
“Every decision that the assembly makes,” he said, “and every validation by the supreme court in exile fortifies the path for reinstituting the constitution in the country.”
Many of the judges struggle as they work for the court without a salary. Some are also law professors and support themselves with part-time jobs, by subsisting on their savings, or through help from family.
Every morning, Martin heads to an office to answer letters addressed to the court and review its cases, which are sent to him by judges, nongovernment organizations or legal groups. Most are handled in the constitutional chamber he presides over, and he discusses cases with the chamber’s Chile-based vice president, Elenis del Valle Rodriguez, before assigning them. Martin frequently travels to Washington, where he meets with international officials to publicize the court’s rulings.
Tulio Alvarez, a constitutional law expert in Venezuela who wrote a paper about the court, said, from a strictly judicial point of view, a Venezuelan court could not function outside the country, but “it will have weight if the government falls.”
Several judges said no matter how long they spent abroad, they would return to Venezuela after a change in government.
Domingo Salgado, a judge living in Miami, said his promise to return “doesn’t depend on whether I have succeeded or not succeeded in rebuilding my life in the United States.”
Shortly before his swearing-in, he became socially active, he said, by training lawyers to educate the public on their responsibility to defend the constitution.
“When you see people suffering in Venezuela,” he said, “when you see children going through trash bags … you realize that the risk is worth it, and you have to try to do something.”