The persecution of Steven Donziger

“Why am I the one being locked up? I helped hold [Chevron] accountable.”


On October 1st Steven Donziger was sentenced in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to the maximum sentence of 6 months in federal prison after being found guilty on six counts of criminal contempt in May. The disbarred former attorney has been denied bail while his lawyers appeal the decision.

The sentence followed two years of house arrest that U.N. experts working for the body’s Human Rights Council have argued is a breach of international law for which Donziger should be compensated.  At the very least, his lawyers believe this time already served should be put towards the prison time Donziger faces and he should be freed.

The disbarment and contempt charges resulted from an earlier case in which Donziger and a group of his clients in Ecuador were targeted with a RICO suit by Chevron, who the former lawyer had spent 20 years fighting in at least two jurisdictions in the Americas seeking restitution for more than 30,000 indigenous people in Lago Agrio, a region close to that country’s border with Colombia. Texaco, which was purchased by Chevron in 2000, had deliberately polluted the land, the rivers and groundwater in the Amazonian region from 1964 through 1992, leaving sickness, birth defects and disease in their wake.

After winning its case against Donziger which will deny him and his clients the right to collect on their successful suit in the United States, Chevron was also awarded $3.4 million in lawyer’s fees in 2014. With additional court fees and fines, Donziger is liable to the tune of about $10 million

As Donziger recently said, “I, with other lawyers, helped Indigenous peoples in Ecuador win a historic $9.5bn pollution judgement against Chevron for the deliberate dumping of billions of gallons of cancer-causing waste into the Amazon. That’s a historical fact. That case has been affirmed on appeal by 28 appellate judges, including the highest courts of Ecuador and Canada for enforcement purposes. So why am I the one being locked up? I helped hold them accountable.” 

In a case that began in 1993 and dragged through the courts until 2011, the plaintiffs Donziger represented won just over $18 billion in damages (later reduced to $9.5 billion by Ecuador’s highest court) from Texaco, a liability transferred to Chevron, who appealed the decision, at times claiming because they had never had operations in the country themselves they shouldn’t be liable for the actions of a company they purchased after the damage was already done.

The contempt charges Donziger was sentenced for stemmed from his refusal to give Chevron’s lawyers, who accused him and his colleagues of bribing the judge in Ecuador in the 1990s, access to his computer and other electronic devices as ordered by another District Judge for New York’s Southern District, Lewis Kaplan. The reason given by Donziger for not handing over the materials, that he didn’t want to put his Ecuadorian clients, who have faced threats of violence, at risk, was dismissed by both Kaplan and Judge Loretta Preska, who presided over his trial on the contempt charges.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had this to say about the treatment of Steven Donziger in U.S. courts, “The charges against and detention of Mr. Donziger appears to be retaliation for his work as a legal representative of indigenous communities as he refused to disclose confidential correspondence with his clients in a very high profile case against a multi-national business enterprise.”

Chevron’s case heavily relied on the testimony of the Ecuadorian judge accused of taking the bribe, Alberto Guerra, who later publicly recanted the testimony that Chevron’s case against Donziger hinged on. Nonetheless, Judge Kaplan’s initial 2014 judgement hasn’t been overturned. It’s been reported Guerra received at least $326,000 and a car from the oil and gas giant and was provided the services of an immigration lawyer after being relocated to the United States by the company.

“I have been attacked and demonized for years by Chevron in retaliation for helping Indigenous peoples in Ecuador try to do something to save their cultures, their lives, and our planet in the face of massive oil pollution. That’s the context for why we are here today,” Donziger told the court after his sentencing this month.

The United States District Judge who sentenced Donziger, Loretta Preska is a leader of the rightwing Federalist Society in New York state, which receives financial support from Chevron.  The group is dedicated to putting right wing judges on the bench and the support of companies like Chevron ensures that those elevated by the group will put the interests of big business before the interests of ordinary people like those in Ecuador still suffering the consequences of the corporation’s plunder of their resources.

As reported by Branko Marketic in Jacobin, this is far from the first time that Preska has had a seeming conflict of interest in a case she presided over. In 2012 she was the judge in the trial of Jeremy Hammond, who was accused of hacking the private security company Stratfor, among other targets. Despite her husband being a Stratfor client whose data was hacked, Preska refused to recuse herself from the case. She sentenced Hammond to 10 years after having him held in pretrial detention during the year-long trial.

It has also been proven that Lewis Kaplan had investments in Chevron through mutual funds, as shown by financial disclosure forms. 

It should be noted that Donziger’s story has been covered in a much different way in much of the business press, with one story in Forbes Magazine I found ignoring Guerra’s admissions and concluding Donziger was little more than a shakedown artist rather than a tireless human rights lawyer seeking to redress inexcusable negligence of and injustice created by a faceless corporate entity. 

In almost any other context a Harvard educated lawyer like Donziger would be seen as immensely privileged (and in comparison to his clients in Ecuador, he still is) but in trying to hold Chevron to account an army of lawyers and PR people have done everything they can to destroy his reputation, deny him the right to make a living in his chosen profession and reduce him and his family to poverty, mostly succeeding at the latter two.

The influence Chevron has been able to wield over U.S. courts in their scorched earth campaign against Donziger is a worrying sign on many fronts. In terms of climate change, it begs the question: If a fossil fuel company can’t be held to account for the very obvious harms they’ve deliberately caused in the past, what chance does the environmental movement and civil society generally have to rein them in and prevent even greater, globalized catastrophes in the future?


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