Steven Donziger’s Persecution Must End, and Chevron Must Clean Up its Mess in Ecuador

Donziger has now been detained for more than a year in connection to his work seeking restitution for Amazonian oil pollution.

August 6 marked the one-year anniversary of the pre-trial detention of attorney Steven Donziger for a misdemeanor contempt charge in a civil case. His crime? Donziger refused to hand over his computer and phone, which contain privileged attorney-client communications, to Chevron.

photo of steven donziger
Donziger on the first day of trial in his class action suit against Chevron. Donziger has been detained for more than a year while awaiting trial on a contempt charge related to the case. Photo courtesy of Steven Donziger.

It might sound absurd, but it is a deadly serious move in Chevron’s years-long efforts to demonize him; to make him persona non grata both in the legal community and the human rights defender community — the worlds that he has inhabited for decades.

The long and the short of the oil giant’s crusade against him is his role as lead attorney in a class action suit filed in 1993 on behalf of 30,000 Indigenous and Campesino Ecuadorians seeking damages and restitution for the massive pollution of part of the Ecuadorian Amazon that has come to be known as the “Amazon Chernobyl.”

That is an apt characterization of a region laid waste through the spillage of over 17 million gallons of crude oil, the deliberate dumping of over 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and streams, and the digging of hundreds of open pits to dispose of toxic waste throughout the Ecuadorian Amazon. When Ecuadorian courts found Chevron guilty to the tune of $9.5 billion in 2011, the company sold its Ecuadorian holdings, fled the country, and refused to pay.

Since then, Chevron has been relentless in its pursuit of Donziger, bringing charges against him in New York through its ally, a corporate-friendly New York District Federal Judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, and multiple other law firms and legal friends of either Chevron or Kaplan. Their multiple manipulations of our legal system to benefit Chevron are legion and just a few examples should cause us all to wonder about the meaning of “equality before the law” in the US.

It all began when Chevron sought to bring charges against Donziger and looked to Judge Kaplan’s court to hear it. When Donziger refused Kaplan’s order to turn over his computer and phone to Chevron, Kaplan charged him with contempt and asked Federal Prosecutors to prosecute the case. They refused – twice.

Undeterred by this seeming legal obstacle, Kaplan hired a private law firm, Seward & Kissel, to do so. Public documents later revealed the firm has Chevron as a client. Kaplan then proceeded to appoint Judge Loretta Preska to preside over the contempt case, ignoring district court rules on random case assignments.

photo of chevron oil damage Ecuador
The Ecuadorian Amazon has been contaminated by the spillage of over 17 million gallons of crude oil, the dumping of over 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and streams, and the digging of hundreds of open pits to dispose of toxic waste. Photo by Xavier Granja Cedeño-Cancilleria.

Finally, and what ultimately brings us to this anniversary of Steven Donziger’s pre-trial detention, was when Preska denied him pre-trial release accepting the flimsy argument that he was a flight risk. This, despite the fact that his passport had been seized and he had guaranteed appearing for trial with an unprecedented sum for a misdemeanor case in this country — a bail bond of $800,000. This, despite the fact that previous to this case, the longest time anyone had been held in such pre-trial detention was three months. This, despite the fact that the longest sentence in a contempt case is six months if convicted – and Donziger has not even been to trial yet on the charge. The trial is currently scheduled to begin November 4.

If none of this makes your head spin, it should. It made my head spin along with those of the 28 other Nobel Prize laureates who joined me in signing a statement in support of Steven Donziger and the Eucadorian plaintiffs in the case against Chevron.

In our statement, we demanded that Chevron face justice for its destruction of the Ecuadorian Amazon. We demanded it then and we demand it now. Our statement also called for the freedom of human rights defender Steven Donziger. We demanded it then and we demand it now.

In our statement we said, “Environmental activism in many countries results in murder. Chevron’s strategy is death by a thousand cuts through the manipulation of a legal system it has managed to stack in its favor. Its goal is to intimidate and disempower the victims of its pollution and a lawyer who has worked for decades on their behalf.” We believed what we said then and we believe it as strongly now.

One year is more than enough. It is one year of Steven Donziger’s life robbed from him as his detention drags on in a small Manhattan apartment, hobbled by a monitoring device he must wear 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Twenty-nine Nobel Prize laureates invite you to join us in raising awareness of this horrendous situation for both the people of Ecuador and for their attorney Steven Donziger. It is time that Chevron face justice and clean up its mess. It is time for the persecution of Steven Donziger to end.

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