Decades of reckless oil drilling by Chevron have destroyed 1,700 square miles of land in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but the company has refused to pay for the damage or clean up the land despite losing a lawsuit 10 years ago, when Ecuador’s Supreme Court ordered the oil giant to pay $18 billion on behalf of 30,000 Amazonian Indigenous people. Instead of cleaning up the damage, Chevron has spent the past decade waging an unprecedented legal battle to avoid paying for the environmental destruction, while also trying to take down the environmental lawyer Steven Donziger, who helped bring the landmark case. Donziger, who has been on house arrest for nearly 600 days, says Chevron’s legal attacks on him are meant to silence critics and stop other lawsuits against the company for environmental damage. “Chevron and its allies have used the judiciary to try to attack the very idea of corporate accountability and environmental justice work that leads to significant judgments,” Donziger says. We also speak with Paul Paz y Miño, associate director at Amazon Watch, who says the new attorney general should conduct a review of the case and the dubious grounds for Donziger’s house arrest. “The real thing that’s going on here is Chevron is attempting to literally criminalize a human rights lawyer who beat them,” Paz y Miño says.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
We turn now to what’s been described as the Amazon’s Chernobyl — 1,700 square miles of land in the Ecuadorian Amazon devastated by decades of reckless oil drilling. Ten years ago, Ecuador’s Supreme Court ordered Chevron to pay $18 billion for dumping over 70 billion liters of oil and toxic waste into the Amazon. The ruling came in a lawsuit brought on behalf of 30,000 Amazonian Indigenous people who had been suffering since the mid-’60s, when Texaco began drilling on their ancestral land. Chevron bought Texaco in 2000.
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. Amazon Watch has spent years documenting the environmental destruction in Ecuador. This is part of a short video produced by the group and narrated by the actor Peter Coyote.
PETER COYOTE: Today, in an Amazon rainforest region of northeastern Ecuador called the Oriente, tens of thousands of men, women and children are surrounded on all sides by widespread oil contamination, the soil polluted, the water poisoned. Over nearly 25 years in Ecuador, American oil giant Chevron, in the form of its predecessor company Texaco, engaged in reckless pump-and-dump oil operations that ravaged thousands of square miles of once-pristine Amazon rainforest. To increase its profit margin by a few dollars per barrel of oil, the company cut corners and used a populated rainforest ecosystem as its toxic dumping grounds. The result? Tens of thousands of people who live in what was once a paradise on Earth now face a horrific epidemic of cancer, birth defects, miscarriages and other oil-related illness. And the Indigenous peoples, who have lived off the bounty of the rainforest for countless generations, now struggle for survival.
AMY GOODMAN: Instead of cleaning up the Ecuadorian Amazon, Chevron has spent the past decade waging an unprecedented legal battle to avoid paying for the environmental damage, while also trying to take down the environmental lawyer Steven Donziger, who helped bring the landmark case. With the help of dozens of law firms, Chevron has ended Donziger’s legal career. He’s been disbarred. His bank accounts have been frozen. He has been forced to surrender his passport. Steve Donziger has also been under house arrest for nearly 600 days, after a federal judge drafted criminal [contempt] charges against him for refusing to turn over his cellphone and computer. 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.
Many of his supporters see Donziger as a corporate political prisoner. His case is attracting growing attention with the legal world, as well as among environmentalists and human rights activists. Fifty-five Nobel laureates, including 10 recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, have called for an end to the judicial attacks on Donziger. A coalition of groups, including Amnesty International, Amazon Watch, the National Lawyers Guild and others, recently wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking him to investigate what they describe as, quote, “disturbing legal attacks” on Donziger. Last week, an appeals court threw out a key contempt finding against Donziger, who’s now waiting to hear if he’ll be freed from house arrest.
Steve Donziger joins us now from his New York home. We’re also joined by Paul Paz y Miño in Oakland, associate director at Amazon Watch. He has been working on the Clean Up Ecuador Campaign for the last 14 years.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Steve Donziger, thanks so much for joining us. Why are you under house arrest? Are you currently wearing an ankle bracelet, a shackle?
STEVEN DONZIGER: I am. I am wearing an ankle bracelet. It’s about the size of a garage door opener. It’s been on my ankle since August 6, 2019. I sleep with it. I eat with that. I bathe with it. It never leaves my ankle. And it allows the government to monitor my whereabouts on a 24/7 basis.
I mean, the fundamental issue here is Chevron destroyed the Ecuadorian Amazon, and I was part of a legal team that held the company accountable. The decision in Ecuador has been affirmed by multiple appellate courts in Ecuador and Canada.
What Chevron did is, rather than pay the judgment that it owes to the thousands of people in Ecuador that it poisoned, it’s gone after me and other lawyers. And in the United States, Chevron sued me for $60 billion, which is the largest potential personal liability in the history of our country. I’m a human rights lawyer. I live in a two-bedroom apartment with my wife and son on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Chevron then launched a campaign to really try to drive me out of the case. And as part of their strategy, they demanded to see my confidential communications with my clients, including everything on my cellphone and computer. And when I appealed that to the higher court here in New York, while the appeal was pending, Judge Kaplan charged me with criminal contempt of court for not complying with the order while the lawfulness of the order was under appeal. He then had me locked up in my home.
This is a misdemeanor charge with a maximum sentence of 180 days in prison. I assert my complete innocence. He appointed a judge, who denied me a jury. And I am the only person in the history of this country, as far as we can tell, who’s charged with a misdemeanor in the federal system, who has no criminal record, who has ever been held for even one day pretrial. And I’ve now been held 585 days on a charge that, if I were to be found guilty, would lead to a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail. And it’s very unlikely I would go to jail, because the longest sentence ever imposed on a lawyer convicted in this district of criminal contempt is 90 days of home confinement. And I’ve already served more than six times that.
So, what’s really happening here is, Chevron and its allies have used the judiciary to try to attack the very idea of corporate accountability and environmental justice work that leads to significant judgments. And I think they’re not only trying to retaliate against me; they’re trying to send a broader message to the activist community, to the legal community, that these types of cases, that truly challenge the fossil fuel industry, that are intimately connected to the survival of our planet, should not be allowed to happen in court, at least not at this level.
And I am hoping — and we had a huge victory last week in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, where Judge Kaplan’s main contempt finding against me was thrown out. And I am hoping cooler heads prevail and the 2nd Circuit issues another decision, based on last week’s argument, that allows me to get my freedom back.
AMY GOODMAN: Everything about this is so unusual, is so astounding. Can you explain what Rule 42 is and the idea that the judge could not get federal prosecutors to indict you, so he was able to choose a private law firm, a lawyer from a private law firm connected to Chevron, and he went after you?
STEVEN DONZIGER: Well, I don’t think this is proper, and I don’t think it’s legal. It is legal for a judge to charge someone with criminal contempt with an adequate basis. I don’t think one exists here. The judge is then obligated, under Rule 42, to take the charges to the regular prosecutor, the professional prosecutor’s office. And in this case, the professional prosecutor refused to bring the case — and, I think, for good reason, again, because I don’t think — this is all about me doing my job as a lawyer and trying to defend my clients’ rights. It isn’t about me defying the court. I was seeking more court review. I wasn’t defying the court when I appealed Judge Kaplan’s order, that turned out to be unlawful.
So, when the prosecutor refused to bring the case, Judge Kaplan appointed a private law firm. Now, it is legal for a judge to appoint a private lawyer to prosecute in those circumstances, but it is not proper to appoint a law firm that has financial ties to Chevron and has an attorney-client relationship to Chevron. I mean, I am essentially being prosecuted by Chevron.
The law firm’s name, by the way, is Seward & Kissel. They’re a kind of a midsize law firm here in New York. What’s really unusual about this is, not only does Seward & Kissel have a financial relationship with Chevron, they have close ties to the oil and gas industry generally, and they’re billing taxpayers for my misdemeanor prosecution. So far they’ve been paid by taxpayers $464,000 to prosecute and detain me on a misdemeanor contempt charge. My guess is they’ve actually been paid a lot more. We haven’t seen all of their bills.
But this is — make no mistake about it, Amy. This is a for-profit, private, corporate prosecution of a human rights lawyer in the name of the government. And it’s never happened before in the history of this country. It’s terrifying, not just for me and my family, but, I think, for anyone who does this work. And I’m hoping that more and more people will notice it, and pressure will build so it has to stop. As a matter of fact, the letter to Merrick Garland by Amnesty International and other groups specifically asks him, in the Justice Department, to review what we believe is the mishandling of this case and these flagrant conflicts of interest that have allowed a private corporation’s law firm to act in the name of the state to deprive a human rights lawyer of his liberty. It’s just not right. It’s not what we know our judicial system to be. And I have to say, people around the world are appalled. I’m talking about serious lawyers from countries all over the world, who have supported the Ecuadorians and supported their lawyers, are appalled to watch this happening in the United States of America.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Steve, as you pointed out and as we began the lede, this — ultimately, this larger story is not about you. It’s about the devastation of Ecuador. And it’s what you point out repeatedly, how you got involved with this. Can you talk about the $9.5 billion — it was actually initially $18 billion — judgment that Chevron owes to the Ecuadorian people, the majority of it allocated not just to clean up the soil and water, but to create support healthcare systems and treatment of cancer patients? The significance what it was that first got you interested in this and that continues to this day?
STEVEN DONZIGER: Well, thank you, Amy. I mean, first of all, thanks for bringing that up, because, ultimately, this is not about Steven Donziger. Chevron wants that to be the story. This is about what Chevron did to poison the Amazon and Ecuador and really devastate the lives of tens of thousands of people, including resulting in death to thousands of people from cancers and other oil-related diseases.
I first went to Ecuador in 1993 as part of a team of lawyers and doctors, led by Cristóbal Bonifaz, to investigate this matter. I was kind of a marginal lawyer on a much larger team for several years. As the case evolved, I became more and more involved. I’ve worked on other cases, by the way. And I want to be clear: This is not my case. This is a case that is controlled and owned by the affected communities in Ecuador, who have a lot of other lawyers working on this. But like other people on that first trip, I couldn’t turn my back on this problem.
We have really tried, year after year, to seek a remedy, to help save lives, to help repair the Amazon, to hold Chevron accountable so this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. And we were very successful in our work. I mean, the judgment in Ecuador has been affirmed by Ecuador’s Supreme Court, by Ecuador’s Constitutional Court. It’s been affirmed by Canada’s Supreme Court for enforcement purposes in a unanimous decision in 2015.
And the attacks on me really are efforts to utilize a New York federal judge to essentially disable my advocacy, because I’ve been so involved over so many years in so many aspects of this case, including fundraising. I’ve been to Ecuador over 200 times to meet with my clients. They don’t want me involved in this case ,and they calculated that if I’m locked up in my home, the case will somehow die.
I will say this, as a quick point: The case is very viable. There are lawyers in different countries around the world exploring opportunities to enforce the judgment against Chevron’s assets. And that is happening completely independent of me.
So, while I really pray for me and my family to get a good outcome, I want to return to my work as a human rights lawyer or as a human rights advocate. This case will go on with or without me. And it’s very important people understand it has the backing of courts all over the world, except this trial judge in the appellate court here in New York, which have, really, I think, gone out of their way, based on highly questionable evidence that Chevron has presented, to try to attack me and the Ecuadorians.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to bring Paul Paz y Miño into this conversation, associate director of Amazon Watch. You, Amnesty International, National Lawyers Guild and others are now appealing to Attorney General Merrick Garland. If you can talk about both what you’re asking him to do — and then, you, too, as being involved with Amazon Watch and other groups, have been deeply involved with Ecuador. Your family lineage is back to Ecuador. Can you talk about what needs to happen now?
PAUL PAZ Y MIÑO: Yes, absolutely. Thank you. And thanks for covering this issue, Amy. I can’t think of a more important topic when it comes to climate justice, corporate accountability and what we’re facing in terms of corporate power in the U.S.
The letter that Amazon Watch and Amnesty USA and other groups have sent is, as Steven pointed out, requesting that the new attorney general conduct a review of how this case has been handled, because of improper acts of targeting Steven Donziger and locking him up in his home for a year and a half on misdemeanor contempt of court charges.
The real thing that’s going on here is Chevron is attempting to literally criminalize a human rights lawyer who beat them. He’s never been accused, let alone convicted, of a crime anywhere. And now Chevron’s machinations by Lewis Kaplan, this federal judge, and Preska, the judge that he has appointed, are on the cusp of turning him into a criminal because he didn’t comply with Kaplan’s outrageous contempt of court orders.
And so, Steven Donziger, for Chevron, is a tactic. It’s a tactic for them to avoid talking about what they actually did, and have the world not look at what they actually did in the Ecuadorian Amazon. And what we want, as the human rights and environmental justice community, is for this new administration to check the corporate power that has manipulated the judicial system to turn Steven Donziger into an example of what will happen if you stand up to corporate power in the United States. And it’s a seriously chilling one.
There is a coalition of organizations called Protect the Protest, which includes Amnesty and us and Greenpeace and many other groups, who have banded together to protect each other from corporate SLAPP attacks. And that’s essentially what we’re seeing in this case, because the —
AMY GOODMAN: And explain the term ”SLAPP attack.”
PAUL PAZ Y MIÑO: ”SLAPP” stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” And this is how corporations prevent activists and organizations from standing up to their abuses. They immediately hit them with baseless lawsuits and force them to spend all the money, sometimes, that they have to defend themselves. And many states in the country do not have anti-SLAPP legislation. So, if they file it in the right place, you are forced to defend yourself against a massive legal team, in some cases. And in Chevron’s case, we’re talking about 60 law firms.
Make no mistake: They did not just go after Steven Donziger, although Steven has been the target of their abuse. They came after Amazon Watch. They came after Rainforest Action Network. They came after their own shareholders. They came after journalists. This has been a scorched-earth tactic by Chevron and their “kill step” law firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, based in D.C. Gibson, Dunn prides itself on what they call the kill step, which is a way to avoid international judgments on U.S. corporations by going after them in the United States.
And what’s so important about this is that the environmental racism that has been steeped from day one by the operations of a U.S. oil company is now being aided and abetted by the U.S. judiciary, because what happened is, the Ecuadorians have never had access to justice in the United States. As you heard from Steven, when the suit was first brought against Texaco in New York, they spent eight years fighting. And then New York’s same district that is now holding Steven in his home sent the case back to Ecuador, saying that it was improper venue. This is based on Texaco arguing it should not be in New York. So, again, the Ecuadorians, who have been suffering with pollution every single day, took their case again to Ecuador and fought for almost another decade to hold Chevron to account. And after they got that judgment — actually, two weeks prior to that judgment, Chevron preemptively sued, back in New York, to prevent them from ever bringing that judgment to the United States.
And the reason that’s important is that they escaped the situation where they would be faced with the facts of their abuses in the Amazon, and a judge in the United States has yet to look at the facts of what they did and determine that they should pay to clean up. And what’s dangerous for Chevron is that it’s only the United States where they’ve been protected in, but they have assets around the world. So, when Steven Donziger was working with others to enforce that judgment internationally, that’s when they turned not only to their SLAPP suit, but to criminalizing him, silencing him and making sure that he can’t continue his work to enforce that Ecuadorian judgment.
AMY GOODMAN: Vice produced a short documentary titled The World’s Worst Oil Related Disaster You’ve Never Heard Of. I want to go to a clip.
PABLO FAJARDO: [translated] Texaco utilized the cheapest technology in order to maximize their profit and economic resources, but in exchange for a larger impact on the environment and on people’s health.
ROSA MORENO: [translated] Out of every 20 babies that are born, 15 or 16 have this same condition.
ECUADORIAN MOTHER: [translated] And now my daughter, who is so young to have a disease such as cancer.
AMY GOODMAN: Steve Donziger, you tweeted, “Indigenous leader Emergildo Criollo of the Cofan is a man I greatly admire. He was a driving force behind the successful lawsuit against Chevron. Chevron engineers told him that oil was 'like milk' and full of vitamins. He lost two children to cancer.” Can you talk about him?
STEVEN DONZIGER: Oh my god. Emergildo is one of the great leaders in the Ecuadorian Amazon who has been one of the driving forces behind the lawsuit for years. I’ve known him since the early 1990s. He’s a leader of the Cofán Indigenous people. He tells these incredible stories from the 1980s, when he was a young man. He lost children to the oil contamination. And when the Indigenous peoples complained about it, the Chevron engineers would say, “Oh, no, this is not a problem. This stuff has vitamins in it. It’s like milk.” I mean, can you imagine the level of disrespect and the level of abuse?
And it really raises a larger issue, which is this case has been led by people like Emergildo and other Indigenous leaders and shamans and rural community leaders, like Luis Yanza and other Ecuadorian lawyers, who won a resounding victory in court. This case really isn’t about me. Chevron has tried to make a caricature out of this case by focusing on me. And it’s important to focus on the people who are really, really suffering and continue to suffer down in Ecuador.
AMY GOODMAN: We only have 10 seconds, but, so, there was a judgment, reduced to $9 billion. What happens now?
STEVEN DONZIGER: The Ecuadorians, with their lawyers, will continue to try to enforce the judgment against Chevron’s assets and force the company to comply with the law. We’ve held them accountable. We won the judgment. We will continue to hold them accountable, forcing them to actually pay the judgment. So, this case is viable and still going on.
AMY GOODMAN: And you remain under house arrest after 600 days.
STEVEN DONZIGER: Yes, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Steve Donziger, I want to thank you for being with us, human rights lawyer who successfully sued Chevron in Ecuador, waiting to hear if he will be freed after nearly 600 days of house arrest. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe. Wear a mask.