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Steven Donziger, Lawyer Who Sued Chevron over Amazon Oil Spills, Marks 2 Years Under House Arrest

StoryAugust 06, 2021
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Protests across the United States are calling for the immediate release of environmental and human rights lawyer Steven Donziger, who has been held under house arrest in New York for two years after being targeted by the oil giant Chevron. Donziger sued the oil giant in Ecuador on behalf of 30,000 Amazonian Indigenous people for dumping 16 billion gallons of oil into their ancestral lands. Ecuador’s Supreme Court ordered Chevron to pay $18 billion a decade ago, a major victory for the environment and corporate accountability. But Chevron refused to pay or clean up the land, and instead launched a legal attack targeting Donziger in the United States. A federal judge in July found Donziger 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. “This is a broader threat to our society,” says Donziger. “We cannot allow in any rule-of-law country, or any country, private prosecutions run by corporations.”

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StoryMar 15, 2021U.S. Lawyer Steven Donziger Speaks from House Arrest in NYC After Suing Chevron for Amazon Oil Spills
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. If you’d like to get our Daily Digest, you can get it emailed by texting the word “democracynow” — one word — to 66866. That’s “democracynow” to 66866.

Protesters are rallying in several cities today to call for the immediate release of environmental and human rights lawyer Steven Donziger, who’s been held under house arrest in New York for two years, after being targeted by the oil giant Chevron.

The case stems from Donziger’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, Chevron launched a legal attack targeting Donziger. Last month, a federal judge found Donziger 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. Today marks two years — 730 days — since Steve Donziger has been on house arrest.

Steve Donziger joins us from his New York home. We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Steve. If you can start off by speaking about the trial that just took place? We talked to you right before the trial. You’ve since gone to trial and been found guilty. But talk about who prosecuted you and what the courtroom and the trial were all about.

STEVEN DONZIGER: Thank you, Amy, for having me.

You know, it wasn’t a trial as trials are commonly understood. There was no jury. The judge, who had already locked me up pretrial — I’m the only lawyer in American history ever locked up pretrial on a misdemeanor. I want to emphasize: This is a misdemeanor case, a petty crime case. And I assert my innocence, but even if I were guilty, it’s a very minor case. No one’s ever been locked up pretrial but me. So the same judge who locked me up now for two years — I haven’t, you know, been sentenced to anything — is the judge who denied me a jury and alone decided my supposed guilt or innocence.

It was intended, really, to be sort of a show trial, where a decision that had previously been made by the Chevron prosecutor — the judge, Judge Preska, allowed a private law firm, Seward & Kissel, which has Chevron as a client, to prosecute me, after the government refused to prosecute me. It was all just precooked. And you kind of felt it watching it in the courtroom. During the trial, Judge Preska was reading the newspaper during witness testimony. All the main witnesses were Chevron lawyers. They testified that Chevron had paid them, Chevron private lawyers from a second law firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher — Chevron had paid them $1,300 an hour and more to help the other Chevron private prosecutor try to convict me. It was all kind of run by Chevron.

And the dangerous part about this, beyond the fact that my liberty has been deprived and I’ve been unable to work and help my clients in Ecuador and work, do my human rights work, is that this is a broader threat to our society. I mean, we cannot allow in any rule-of-law country, or any country, private prosecutions run by corporations. It’s just extraordinary. You know, if this were run by a normal prosecutor, the case never would have happened, or at a minimum I never would have been locked up prior to trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, the federal prosecutors refused to prosecute you, is that right?

STEVEN DONZIGER: That’s exactly right. You know, what happened was, underneath all of this is the fact that I worked on a team of lawyers for years to hold Chevron accountable for the Amazon Chernobyl, this massive, deliberate dumping of cancer-causing oil waste down in Ecuador, where Indigenous groups have been decimated. And Chevron wanted that trial held in Ecuador’s courts. And we fought for eight years against Chevron, won this big judgment in 2011. And rather than pay the judgment, they decided to try to demonize me and try to criminalize lawyering, criminalize human rights lawyering.

They’ve had this planned for 10 years. We know for a fact — and they’ve admitted it — that way back in 2010 they went to the SDNY, which is the federal prosecutor in Manhattan, seeking to prosecute me for this supposed fraud in Ecuador, which is just hogwash. And they refused to prosecute me then. And, you know, I kept going, along with other lawyers, to try to enforce the judgment against Chevron that we had won in Ecuador, which, by the way, has been affirmed by six appellate courts in Ecuador and Canada. I mean, this is a real judgment.

And they then went back to this U.S. federal judge, Judge Lewis Kaplan, who’s a former tobacco industry defense lawyer, and got him to demand I turn over my computer and cellphone and electronic devices to Chevron. Again, no one’s ever heard of such a thing in the middle of a litigation. When I appealed that order, he then charged me with criminal contempt of court for appealing the lawfulness of his own order. No lawyer in American history who’s appealed a civil discovery order in this fashion has ever been charged with criminal contempt but me. You know, no lawyer charged with any criminal contempt in New York has ever been held pretrial. And the longest sentence ever given a lawyer convicted of this supposed crime is 90 days of home detention. And I’ve now been over eight times that amount in my home.

So, what’s really driving this, Amy, is, I believe, Chevron and its judicial allies want to, you know, A, protect Chevron from having to pay the liability to the people of Ecuador that the company poisoned, and, B, they want to send a larger message to lawyers and the legal profession and environmental defenders and water protectors that you’re not allowed to do this work, at least not at this level. You will be attacked, and we’ll throw everything we can at you. And, by the way, Chevron has used 60 law firms and 2,000 lawyers to target me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you were sentenced to six months in jail, six months more?

STEVEN DONZIGER: Yes. So, Judge Preska, who’s driving this, has set a sentencing date for October 1st. You know, I’m very fortunate, because there’s a massive amount of support, as you acknowledged in the opening to this segment, growing around the world. We have rallies today in 15 cities around the world demanding my release, including Seattle, San Francisco, L.A., New York, Boston, Toronto, Tel Aviv and Quito, among them, Melbourne. So, you know, we are building a movement to not only demand my release and to protect the freedom of me and my family, but also to protect this idea that you can do corporate accountability lawyering and not be attacked by right-wing judges and corporations that can take over the public machinery of the prosecution.

You know, this is a serious issue. Like, having a corporation prosecute someone and have the power to deprive someone of their liberty in the United States can’t happen. This is the first time. And, of course, if they get away with it with me, this, I believe, is a part of the playbook of the fossil fuel industry to do this to other activists and lawyers.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Steve, we want to thank you for being with us. Six members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including AOC, Cori Bush, Rules Committee Chair Jim McGovern and others, Jamie Raskin, have called for the DOJ to review everything that’s happened to you. Steve Donziger, human rights lawyer, who successfully sued Chevron in Ecuador for dumping oil and toxic waste in the Amazon. He’s been under house arrest for two years today. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Stay safe.

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