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Lawyer Steven Donziger, Who Sued Chevron over “Amazon Chernobyl,” Ordered to Prison After House Arrest

StoryOctober 27, 2021
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The environmental and human rights lawyer Steven Donziger joins us just before he is ordered to report to jail today, after a years-long legal battle with the oil company Chevron and 813 days of house arrest. In 2011, Donziger won an $18 billion settlement against Chevron on behalf of 30,000 Indigenous people in Ecuador for dumping 16 billion gallons of oil into their ancestral land in the Amazon. Since the landmark case, Donziger has faced a series of legal attacks from Chevron and a New York federal judge, who has employed a private law firm linked to the oil company to prosecute him. Earlier this month, he was sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of court, and his request for bail pending his appeal was denied. Amnesty International and United Nations human rights advocates, along with several U.S. lawmakers, are calling for Donziger’s immediate release. “Chevron and these two judges, really allies of the fossil fuel industry, are trying to use me as a weapon to intimidate activists and lawyers who do this work,” says Donziger. “I need to be prosecuted by a neutral prosecutor, not by Chevron.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

The environmental human rights lawyer Steven Donziger is reporting to jail today, after a federal appellate court rejected his request for bail pending his appeal. Earlier this month, Steve Donziger was sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of court — a misdemeanor. Donziger has already spent over two years under house arrest after being targeted by the oil giant Chevron.

The case stems from Steve’s role in suing Chevron on behalf of 30,000 Amazonian Indigenous people for dumping 16 billion gallons of oil into their ancestral land in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Ten years ago, Ecuador’s Supreme Court ordered Chevron to pay $18 billion. The landmark ruling was seen as a major victory for the environment and corporate accountability. But Chevron refused to pay or clean up the land. Instead, it launched a legal attack targeting Donziger.

In July, a federal judge found him guilty of six counts of criminal contempt of court, after he refused to turn over his computer and cellphone. In an unusual legal twist, the judge appointed a private law firm with ties to Chevron to prosecute Donziger after federal prosecutors declined to bring charges.

Amnesty International recently called for his immediate release, saying he was being arbitrarily detained. The U.N.’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has also called for his release.

Well, as he prepares to report to prison later today, Steve Donziger is joining us from his home in New York where he’s been under house arrest for 813 days. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., there will be a major news conference held today outside the Capitol.

Steve Donziger, welcome back to Democracy Now! Where are you heading to prison today? We’re talking about a misdemeanor. You’ve already been under house arrest for nearly a thousand days.

STEVEN DONZIGER: It’s just extraordinary, Amy. Thank you for the introduction. I mean, it pretty much captured it. What I’ll say is I have to report to prison by 4:48 p.m. today, which is in itself highly unusual. I don’t believe I’m guilty. No lawyer has ever spent more than 90 days in home confinement — maximum sentence ever given to a lawyer convicted of my charge, which is misdemeanor contempt. I’ve already spent over eight times that at home. And on top of that, Judge Preska is trying to put me in prison for six months. And, you know, another unusual feature is she’s making me report within 24 hours after this latest court ruling that came down yesterday, rather than allowing me time to report, you know, in a normal course to a prison. So, there’s so much about this that doesn’t —

AMY GOODMAN: And which prison are you going to be held at?

STEVEN DONZIGER: I don’t know yet. You know, by forcing me in so quickly, Judge Preska, I believe, is trying to force me into a local federal jail, that I think is very unsafe. I mean, I have no security risk at all. I’ve never been convicted. It’s the lowest-level offense. So, normally, I would go to federal prison camp. And, you know, we need time for the Bureau of Prisons to designate me to an appropriate facility. Instead, she’s trying to force me very quickly, I think, into a local jail, which concerns me greatly, frankly. And I think that’s one reason why Amnesty International put out an urgent action bulletin two days ago for people to write to the attorney general, Garland, to just stop this case.

I mean, the other crazy thing about this that is so disturbing, Amy, is that I was not prosecuted by the U.S. government. I was prosecuted by a private law firm, Seward & Kissel, appointed by a federal judge after the U.S. government declined to prosecute me. And the judge never disclosed that the law firm had Chevron as a client. So, essentially, I’m being prosecuted by a Chevron law firm, a partner in a Chevron law firm, a private law firm, who deprived me of my liberty. I’m the only person ever charged with this offense held pretrial, at home or in prison — never happened before for even a day. It’s over 800 days. So, you know, this is the first corporate prosecution in U.S. history. I have never seen a case like this, nor have other legal experts that work with me. And, you know, we just think, you know, to restore the rule of law as regards Steve Donziger and the people of Ecuador, this case has to be stopped and taken over by the Department of Justice. I mean, they could do what they want with it. I mean, if they went to prosecute me, prosecute me, but I need to be prosecuted by a neutral prosecutor, not by Chevron.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to just talk about some of the people who are supposed to be at your news conference in Washington. We just interviewed a climate striker on a hunger strike in Washington, D.C., and we heard from Congressmember Rashida Tlaib. She’ll be there at your news conference. Also you have Chuy García, Congressmember Jesús “Chuy” García from Chicago, Congressmember Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, as well as a number of people from Amnesty International, Law Students for Climate Accountability. Talk about the significance — I mean, you have so many supporters at this point at high levels, yet talk about what’s at stake, what it is you exposed in Ecuador.

STEVEN DONZIGER: Well, I think the stakes are high, and it goes way beyond me personally. I mean, on a personal level, it hurts. I have a wife and a 15-year-old son, and, you now, we’re hurting, OK?

But let’s just get real here. What’s really happening here is Chevron and these two judges and, really, allies of the fossil fuel industry are trying to use me as a weapon to intimidate activists and lawyers who do this work, who do the frontline work of defending the planet. What’s at stake, really, I mean, not only my freedom — what’s at stake is the ability to advocate for human rights in our society. I mean, the things I was charged with were — I was a lawyer litigating various court orders, you know, for years, ethically. You know, I’m proud of my work. And this judge just went after me. I’m the only lawyer ever in U.S. history to be charged with criminal contempt of court for challenging a civil discovery order on appeal. That’s essentially what happened.

So, you know, I’m calling on judges and people in Congress, like Representative Tlaib and Jim McGovern and Cori Bush and others who stepped up for me, to continue speaking out, to enlist more people. We need people in the Senate. And ultimately, we need the Biden administration. I mean, I heard your previous guest. I mean, the Biden administration is essentially letting a climate change lawyer, me, an environmental justice lawyer, an Indigenous rights lawyer, an Earth defender, a water protector, be locked up on American soil.

And it’s getting really embarrassing for our country. You know, it’s not every day that Amnesty International issues an urgent action for an American citizen. It’s probably the second time in 20 years that this has happened, OK? It’s not every day that the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issues an order that someone in the United States’s case is a violation of multiple provisions of international law and shows an appalling degree of lack of impartiality by judges.

You know, so our country needs to deal with this. It really goes to what kind of society we want to live in. And it really relates to the climate issue, because, again, I believe this whole thing is being orchestrated by Chevron, not just for Chevron, but for the entire fossil fuel industry. They don’t want people speaking out. They don’t want successful litigation to hold them to account for their pollution in ways that will help save the planet. And I think, ultimately, that’s what this is about. And people need to pay serious attention to what’s happening to me —

AMY GOODMAN: Steven Donziger, you have called the devastation in Ecuador the “Amazon Chernobyl.” Explain why. Explain the original lawsuit that resulted in an $18 billion judgment against Chevron.

STEVEN DONZIGER: Basically, Chevron, in the form of Texaco, its predecessor company, went into the Amazon of Ecuador and decided to create an operational system, with literally hundreds of wells, where they deliberately dumped toxic waste into waters — into rivers and streams that Indigenous groups relied on for their drinking water, bathing and fishing, creating a mass industrial poisoning of a 1,500 square mile area. And literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people have died. I’ve been there over 250 times.

The affected communities went to court, in the court Chevron wanted it, the trial, to happen, in Ecuador. They won the case. Chevron has attacked me, attacked them, for 10 years, with the help of these federal judges.

In the meantime, people are suffering. And, you know, the degree of contamination is appalling. I mean, it is the Amazon Chernobyl. It’s the very definition of ecocide, in my opinion. I mean, it’s just a deliberate decision, in order to save money, to dump 16 billion gallons of cancer-causing waste onto Indigenous ancestral lands.

And the problem is still there. The case has been going on 28 years. And no matter what happens to me — and I hope I’ll be OK, I hope I’ll get through this, I expect to get through this — the communities in Ecuador are suffering tremendously, and they need help. And Chevron needs to step up and comply with the rule of law and pay the judgment that it owes to the people of Ecuador.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Clearly, the fight against oil extraction in the Amazon continues. A lawsuit was filed just last week. Again, you tweeted yesterday — around breaking news, you tweeted, “After” — just to give people a sense — “After 100 pages of legal briefing, the appellate court today denied my release in 10 words. This is not due process of law. Nor is it justice.” In these last 30 seconds, is it definite you will be jailed tonight?

STEVEN DONZIGER: Nothing is ever definite. We are going to make one final attempt to go back to my trial judge and ask for more time so I can get properly designated to an appropriate federal prison. I don’t know if she’ll grant it. We’re going to do that shortly. I am prepared and fully expect to, around 2:00 today, leave my home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and report to prison, where I will spend the next six months.

AMY GOODMAN: After serving over two years under house arrest for a misdemeanor. Steven Donziger, the environmental lawyer targeted by Chevron after he successfully sued the oil giant for ecological devastation in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! currently accepting applications for two positions: director of finance and administration and human resources manager. Apply at I’m Amy Goodman.

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