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Steven Donziger: corporate political prisoner

CHLOE KOFFMAN tells the story of a US lawyer trapped under house arrest and awaiting trial after pursuing environmental justice for indigenous Ecuadorians whose land and water was poisoned by an oil giant multinational

US LAWYER Steven Donziger helped thousands of Ecuadorians win billions in damages in a historic lawsuit against oil multinational Chevron, for dumping toxic waste in the rainforest, poisoning the land and water of the indigenous people. 

Nine years later, he sits imprisoned, trapped under house arrest in his New York apartment, waiting for a trial that has been condemned by hundreds of lawyers, legal advocates and Nobel laureates across the world. 

Beginnings

Before he began his fight against Chevron, Donziger had been witnessing the fight against injustice from an early age. 

Born in Florida, his mother took him to picket with the “Salad Bowl Strikers,” led by Cesar Chavez, when he was a child.  

Her social activism influenced Donziger as he retrained at Harvard Law School and made a commitment to defending the rights of those who the legal system would fail. 

Initially working as a public defender in Washington DC before going on to help document civilian casualties in the Iraq war, Donziger’s attention soon turned to an unfolding environmental crisis. 

In 1991, his work led him to Ecuador, where he was first exposed to the damage oil companies had wreaked upon previously unspoilt lands. 

The Amazon Chernobyl 

In 1964, Texaco, then a major US oil company, signed a deal with the government of Ecuador which allowed it to begin drilling for oil on thousands of acres of rainforest. 

Ecuador was a particularly attractive target, due to the lack of environmental protections regarding drilling and waste disposal. 

Over decades, Texaco continued to drill across an expanding area of natural land and began dumping toxic waste without consequence. 

The scale of this environmental damage inflicted by Texaco was, and remains, so monumental that it has been referred to as the “Amazon Chernobyl.” 

Oil drilling is a highly destructive activity, which produces large amounts of waste water; toxic and contaminated water which needs to be deliberately disposed of in order to prevent pollution. 

Instead of safely disposing of this waste and protecting the environment, Texaco, by its own admission, dumped over 15.8 billion gallons of waste across the Ecuadorian rainforest and in the lands of indigenous communities. 

Unlined pits crudely dug into the ground would be filled with drilling waste, infecting the soil, with the overspill flowing out into nearby water sources. 

Natural resources were destroyed and workers tasked with disposing of the waste and crude oil reported unsafe working conditions, while mainly indigenous workers were employed to participate in dangerous clean-up activities. 

The effect of this environmental destruction soon revealed its human cost. Residents who lived near contaminated sites reported an increase in deaths from cancer, high rates of miscarriages and babies being born with deformities. 

Emergildo Criollo of the Cofan tribe recounted in the 2009 documentary Crude how he lost two sons from illness after they were poisoned by contaminated river water. 

A resident of San Carlos, close to an oil production site and contaminated water sites, told how she no longer had enough money to pay for her young daughters’ cancer treatment, which may have been caused by the pollution. 

Activist Luis Yanza said some of his earliest childhood memories were stepping in thick black liquid as he watched abnormal clouds forming in the sky. 

These clouds were smoke from fires set by Texaco in an attempt to destroy waste from its drilling activities. 

Though this pollution continued for decades without punishment, it did not go unnoticed. 

After being exposed to the horrors of what Texaco had done in Ecuador during his first visit, Donziger, alongside a team of lawyers, helped file a class-action lawsuit against Texaco on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorians, mostly indigenous people and many of them campesinos, in New York. 

The lawsuit claimed that Texaco had contaminated the land and water in the Lago Agrio region, and demanded damages and a commitment to clean up. 

Texaco was purchased by Chevron in 2001, which then outlandishly claimed that it had already fulfilled its duties in rectifying the pollution and argued that the Ecuadorian government should be held responsible for the remaining clean-up. 

A year later, Chevron requested that the case be tried in Ecuador and this was granted. 

Donziger and the team began a vigorous campaign of education ahead of the trial, detailing how land and water had been quietly poisoned, while Chevron denied all responsibility. 

In 2011, in a judgement that can be described as historic, an Ecuadorian court ruled that Chevron was responsible for the contamination and the clean-up, awarding $18 billion in damages. 

The ruling was upheld by three appellate courts but the damages were eventually reduced to $9.5 billion; the largest damages claim for environmental crimes in history. 

Chevron’s resistance began immediately, moving its assets out of the country to avoid paying while prosecutors pursued it in Canada, Brazil and Argentina, though many of these efforts were unsuccessful. 

Targeting Donziger

In order to avoid the monumental Ecuadorian ruling, Chevron set its eyes on a new target — Steven Donziger. 

Donziger’s crucial role in the legal case had not gone unnoticed by the oil multinational, as it hired 2,000 lawyers and prepared to fight the judgement any way it could. 

In 2011, it filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act (Rico) charge against Donziger, claiming he was a corrupt figure who had influenced the Ecuadorian judgement and was attempting to “loot” the company. 

Among several charges, Donziger was accused of bribery, falsifying scientific studies to prove environmental damage and ordering a ghostwritten judgement for the Ecuadorian case. 

Chevron initially sought to claim over $60 billion in damages and costs. However, this enormous claim was rescinded two weeks before trial, as a claim of this size would have to be tried by a jury. 

Rather than providing Donziger with a jury of his peers, Chevron stopped pursuing the monetary damages and opted for a trial by judge with US District Judge Lewis Kaplan assigned to the case. 

The evidence for the prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of a former Ecuadorian judge, Alberto Guerra. 

Guerra supported claims that Donziger had told him to ghostwrite the damages judgement for the Ecuadorian case, while presiding judge Nicolas Zambrano and himself had shared a $500,000 payment. 

His testimony was the key to pursuing the charges against Donziger. 

However, Guerra’s reliability as a witness has been called into question. 

It was revealed that Chevron has a financial relationship with Guerra, moving his family to the United States, with monthly expenses and immigration lawyers paid for by the multinational. 

They also rehearsed Guerra’s testimony with him 53 times before trial. Though seemingly incredible, Guerra’s admissions were absolutely key to the prosecution. 

However, they have since been recalled when Guerra himself admitted to an international tribunal in 2015 that there was no evidence of Donziger bribing him for a ghostwritten judgement, as well as admitting that the Rico case contained statements from him that were false or exaggerated. 

Despite there being little evidence and even an admission of a “smear campaign” from Chevron itself, in 2014, Kaplan found Donziger guilty and ruled the Ecuadorian damages verdict null and void due to his alleged misconduct. 

This was a huge blow to the Ecuadorian people who had suffered at the hands of Chevron, left with polluted lands and water, with any collection on the billions of damages owed seemingly out of sight. 

Guerra’s admission that large parts of his testimony were false was ignored by an appeals court. 

Donziger was labelled a corrupt criminal and barred from practising law in New York. 

The verdict shocked the international community, with the US judicial system’s adherence to corporate desire seemingly transparent. 

However, it was a further step by Judge Kaplan that continued an intense process of judicial harassment, not often witnessed in a modern democracy. 

Donziger’s punishment

As part of the appeals process for the Rico case, Judge Kaplan made an unusual request, ordering Donziger to hand over his mobile and computers, containing vital information regarding the Ecuadorian lawsuit. 

Donziger refused, knowing this would violate the attorney-client privilege that helped bring Chevron to justice, and appealed the order.  

The repercussions for Donziger’s refusal were swift. Judge Kaplan charged Donziger with six counts of criminal contempt of court and began the process of prosecution.

Kaplan then circumvented a random selection process and appointed well-known conservative judge, Loretta Preska, for the contempt case. 

Following the Southern District Court of New York’s refusal to prosecute Donziger, Kaplan chose to appoint a private law firm, Seward & Kissel, to prosecute, in a move that defies normal legal precedent. 

Not only is the prospect of a private prosecutor daunting but concerns were amplified when Seward & Kissel were found to be tied to Chevron and the oil industry in recent years. 

Despite criminal contempt of court being a misdemeanour charge, Donziger's treatment was unusually severe. 

Once again denied a jury of his peers, in August last year, Preska ordered Donziger to return to his apartment and remain there under house arrest until his trial. 

This move was particularly extraordinary, as placing someone under house arrest for such a charge contravenes standard practice and is egregiously harsh. 

Donziger remains trapped in his apartment over a year later, living with his wife and son, his bank accounts frozen. 

He is banned from working or earning money and the people he represented in Ecuador are left with the irreversible environmental damage done by Texaco and Chevron’s refusal to clean up. 

Two of his lawyers have been banned from representing him at his trial, which is currently scheduled for May 10.

The actions of Judge Preska and the prosecution are inexplicable. Not a single lawyer in US history has been detained for a day pre-trial, yet Donziger has been under house arrest for over 500 days. What is most extraordinary, is that the maximum sentence for Donziger’s alleged crimes is 180 days, far less than the time he has spent trapped in his home. 

With little to no prospects of coverage in the mainstream media, Preska and Chevron have been successful in their attempt to bury Donziger’s case and deprive it of support from the wider public. 

The future of environmental justice

Chevron’s conduct, in both Ecuador and the United States, proves that not only are powerful multinationals able to gut the lands of indigenous people without impunity but that the justice systems of capitalist societies are willing to hand them the knife. 

They have gone unpunished for their crimes in Ecuador, leaving farming and indigenous communities to suffer the pollution that damaged their natural resources beyond repair and the illness and deaths of their family members. 

As well as their environmental crimes, their treatment of Steven Donziger has wider implications for the accountability of private businesses and their role in the climate crisis. 

The unprecedented violation of standard legal practice represents a new step towards actively criminalising those who challenge the power of massive corporations. 

Chevron is the second-highest commercial polluter on Earth. Multinational corporations are widely responsible for destroying the planet, often running rampant in countries far from the attention of the media, while causing irreversible damage. 

In the age of the climate crisis, the Ecuadorian ruling which Donziger helped to deliver, would be a landmark blow against those seemingly immune from punishment. 

But following the intervention of the US judicial system and Chevron’s relentless legal assault, Donziger remains imprisoned and Chevron remains unaccountable. 

He is an emblem of a system which has not only enabled Chevron to wreak havoc across Ecuador and deny justice to their people but to punish those who dare to challenge its transgressions. 

To put it bluntly, in the words of Donziger himself, he is “a corporate political prisoner.”

The suppression of environmental advocates is a global issue, extending beyond this one legal ambush. 

Attacks on environmental advocates are becoming all too familiar. Killings have doubled in the last 15 years, with authoritarian regimes overseeing violence and murder, often perpertrated on behalf of large companies. 

In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro turns a blind eye to killings of indigenous leaders, while gold miners plunder previously protected lands. 

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has overseen the slaughtering of environmental activists to crush any opposition to expanding agribusiness interests. 

Though this violence seems distant, the US has allowed corporations to use their justice system to mimic this intimidation by threatening those who dare to stand up with excessive and insurmountable legal challenges. 

Journalists, lawyers and activists must not be punished by the state for pursuing environmental justice. 

The consequences of this intimidation will result in the future of the climate crisis being shaped by those who stand to profit from destruction and pollution. 

Steven Donziger has not suffered violence but he is being punished after endeavouring to seek justice for the suffering of others. 

It remains the duty of socialists and climate activists everywhere to provide a voice, for him and the people of Ecuador.

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