Environmental lawyer Steven Donziger was freed on Monday after 993 days of detention, including 45 days in prison, and he is back in the fight against Chevron over the oil company’s liability for pollution in the Ecuadorian rainforest.
Chevron, which has refused to honor a 2011 Ecuadorian court order to pay $9.5 billion in compensation for extensive pollution, conspired to make Donziger suffer for his legal representation.
Donziger battled with Chevron on the Lago Agrio oil field case, in which he represented over 30,000 farmers and indigenous Ecuadorians in a class action case to resolve accountability for environmental damage and health effects caused by years of reckless oil drilling.
In February 2011, a court in Ecuador found that Chevron Corporation between 1964 and 1992 caused serious environmental and health damage to the Amazon rainforest and the people who lived in the region.
The company claims that Texaco, which Chevron later acquired, was released from liability after it carried out a $40 million cleanup.
“While Chevron tried to silence me, I was able to build tremendous support from around the world,” said Donziger. “There is little doubt Chevron has failed and I have emerged from the experience even stronger.”
After an Ecuadorian court awarded the plaintiffs $9.5 billion in damages, Chevron withdrew its assets from that country and launched legal action against Donziger in the US, despite the fact that the judgment against Chevron was confirmed on the merits, or for enforcement purposes, by Ecuador’s Supreme Court, as well as by the Supreme Court of Canada.
In 2011, Chevron filed a lawsuit against Donziger in New York City, using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a federal law that provides for extended penalties and a civil cause of action for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal organization.
The case was heard by US District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who determined that the ruling of the Ecuadorian court could not be enforced in the US because it was procured by fraud, bribery, and racketeering activities.
As a result of this case, Donziger was disbarred from practicing law in New York in 2018 because he refused to give Chevron access to confidential, privileged, and protected documents.
Before being nominated by President Bill Clinton to a seat on the United States District Court, Kaplan represented Phillip Morris.
Kaplan granted Chevron’s motion barring enforcement of an almost $10 billion judgment by the Ecuadorian courts against the company and he ruled that the lawyer cheated to build his successful case in the foreign court.
When the SDNY US Attorney’s Office declined to pursue the case against Donziger for criminal contempt, Kaplan appointed to prosecute the environmental lawyer a private law firm that had worked directly with Chevron at least twice. Kaplan also selected a senior district judge, Judge Loretta Preska, to preside over the criminal case, in violation of court rules.
The United Nations Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention criticized the situation and said that Donziger had not been granted a fair trial.
“In recent years, the American government has given the fossil fuel industry hundreds of billions of dollars of subsidies and opened up wide swaths of public land for drilling,” said Walker Bragman. “Now, as the climate crisis worsens, a federal judge has given a private corporate law firm with ties to fossil fuel companies the power to criminally prosecute one of the industry’s biggest foes—a lawyer who notched one of history’s biggest legal victories against a major oil company.”
“Now it is time for all of us to come together to build our movement for environmental justice to the highest possible level so we can force Chevron to pay the money it owes to the people of Ecuador — and so we can take on broader issues of human rights violations and environmental crimes that will put us in a much stronger position to save the planet.”
Responding to his release, the human rights organization Amnesty International called on the US government to honor an October call by a United Nations committee to launch a “full and independent investigation” of the circumstances surrounding the “arbitrary deprivation of liberty” of Donziger and to “take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of his rights.”
“The charges against and detention of Mr. Donziger appear to be retaliation for his work as a legal representative of indigenous communities,” said a report from the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which also found a “staggering display of lack of objectivity and impartiality” on the part of Judge Lewis Kaplan of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, who has handled much of the US part of Donziger’s case.
Amnesty also called on the government to quickly enact legislation against what are known as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) suits. These aim to intimidate critics by having them shoulder the costs of a legal defense until they back down.