Six-Month Sentence for Lawyer Who Took on Chevron Denounced as ‘International Outrage’

By Julia Conley. Originally published at Common Dreams

Environmental justice advocates and other progressives on Friday condemned a federal judge’s decision Friday to sentence human rights lawyer Steven Donziger to six months in prison—following more than two years of house arrest related to a lawsuit he filed decades ago against oil giant Chevron.

The sentence, delivered by U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in New York City, represents “an international outrage,” tweeted journalist Emma Vigeland following its announcement.

Donziger’s sentence came a day after the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said it was “appalled” by the U.S. legal system’s treatment of the former environmental lawyer and demanded the U.S. government “remedy the situation of Mr. Steven Donziger without delay and bring it in conformity with the relevant international norms” by immediately releasing him.

Donziger represented a group of farmers and Indigenous people in the Lago Agrio region of Ecuador in the 1990s in a lawsuit against Texaco—since acquired by Chevron—in which the company was accused of contaminating soil and water with its “deliberate dumping of billions of gallons of cancer-causing waste into the Amazon.”

An Ecuadorian court awarded the plaintiffs a $9.5 billion judgment in 2011—a decision upheld by multiple courts in Ecuador—only to have a U.S. judge reject the ruling, accusing Donziger of bribery and evidence tampering. Chevron also countersued Donziger in 2011.

In 2019, U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York—a former corporate lawyer with investments in Chevron—held Donziger in contempt of court after he refused to disclose privileged information about his clients to the fossil fuel industry. Kaplan placed Donziger under house arrest, where he has remained under strict court monitoring for 787 days.

In addition to Kaplan’s own connections to Chevron, the judge appointed private attorneys to prosecute the case, including one who had worked for a firm that represented the oil giant.

Preska, who found Donziger guilty of the contempt charges in July, is a leader of the right-wing Federalist Society, which counts Chevron among its financial backers.

“As I face sentencing on Day 787 of house arrest, never forget what this case is really about,” tweeted Donziger on Friday morning, as he awaited the sentencing. “Chevron caused a mass industrial poisoning in the Amazon that crushed the lives of Indigenous peoples. Six courts and 28 appellate judges found the company guilty.”

Donziger indicated Friday afternoon that he plans to appeal the sentence.

“Stay strong,” he tweeted along with a photo from a rally attended by his supporters Friday. co-founder and author Bill McKibben said on social media that Donziger “deserves our thanks and support” for “daring to point out that Big Oil had poisoned the rainforest.”

Rick Claypool, research director for Public Citizen, tweeted that Donziger’s case “perfectly encapsulates how corporate power has twisted the U.S. justice system to protect corporate interests and punish their enemies”—noting that as Donziger is ordered to prison for six months, members of the Sackler family recently won immunity from opioid lawsuits targeting their private company, Purdue Pharma.”This ruling was done to deter ANYONE from crossing corporate special interests,” said progressive former congressional candidate Jen Perelman.

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      1. lance ringquist

        nafta billy clinton set the precedent with subduing our constitution to kangaroo courts called the W.T.O. , which is run by corporate types.

        now america takes for granted corporate rule.

  1. timbers

    So what I want to know is, when do Syria, Iran, Russia, China, NATO, and a coalition of the willing start carpet bombing every inch of America in support of her Moderate Rebels?

    1. Alex Cox

      Assange, Murray, and Donziger are all locked up, as you observe. But it doesn’t end there. Also incarcerated are Daniel Hale, Alex Saab, and Pablo Hassel – and there are others. What they have in common is that they were all incarcerated by politically-appointed judges, without a jury trial.

      Hale pled guilty to one charge in Alexandria, VA. Saab, like Assange, is incarcerated while facing extradition to the US. Hassel was jailed in Spain for “insulting the king.”

      The politically-appointed judge in Murray’s case is pushing to do away with jury trials. Imprisonment without trial by jury is a very serious matter, though our MSM doesn’t seem to think so.

      1. lordkoos

        Thanks for that. When reading about her I found this (my bold type):

        Edwards conveyed the information to Jason Leopold via WhatsApp, which she inaccurately believed to be secure; in fact, the data that the FBI obtained from WhatsApp helped the FBI secure Edward’s conspiracy conviction.

        Another app to avoid…

    2. YankeeFrank

      Let’s not forget Edward Snowden, who may spend the rest of his life in Russia thanks to Obama and in order to avoid prosecution under the travesty that is the Espionage Act.

      Its become all too clear that there is no longer any justice at all for those who in any way challenge the authority of the war state. Its ugly and getting uglier and its hard for us to imagine at this point anything that will curtail their arbitrary, barbaric and cruel power though I do believe the cracks in the structure they rely on to act with impunity are getting wider everyday. I say this because the draconian power flexing now continually on display may appear to be strength but a truly powerful and institutionally solid state does not have the need to crush, dominate and silence its best. I think they know even better than we do how tenuous their positions are.

      1. philnc

        Avoid ALL of them, if you’re doing serious activism (that is, activism that’s likely to get the attention of the authorities): NOTHING is secure enough, short of hand written notes, hand carried by trusted individuals. I am always stupified by the willingness of “left wing” orgs to use FaceBook, Google Groups, and other more explicitly political commercial services, to do membership communications. ProtonMail encryption doesn’t do a damn thing if you post the text of those emails to a “private” FaceBook page or group (and even ProtonMail should be used with caution: note the recent case of a French activist detained on evidence provided by PM to authorities). With those in power constantly equating vocal dissent with violence, activists need to be more careful than ever. Besides, as someone recently mentioned in a Zoom (I know, I know), people should really be thinking about alternative ways to do their organizing work in the (likely) event access is denied to those tools — or a collapse of systems that support them.

        1. Jeremy Grimm

          Being ignorant and stupid will do little to advance a radical cause. I am surprised how often radicals trust the all too easy channels of communication and all too seldom use them for indirection and confusion of the enemy.

        2. drsteve0

          Indeed, there are few things more unsettling to smug authoritarians, presumably in control, than dissidents whose voices ring true and may spread resistance. For TPTB those entities must be identified and neutralized. Beware, as am I, that merely by posting on a site such as this one you might just be painting a big ‘ole target on your back. Hello, NSA? Nonetheless, be brave, but be careful.

    1. howseth

      Yes, Why not NY Times covering this? I’ve been following Donziger on Twitter this past year- I don’t remember how I heard about his case – was not the NY Times – this whole debacle is extraordinary.
      It appears that it’s the federal judge, and prosecuter that should be on trial – not Donziger.

  2. Susan the other

    It is the profit motive. I honestly hate to sound like a total Commie. I’m really not. But it is time for our brand of economic exploitation to evolve. Just evolve enough to meet a viable reality. Our “economics” has already dangerously neglected the future. Donziger should be the last person to get perp walked. First let’s do all the pious CEOs of big oil and big everything else. This is just horrifying. That obscene judge should go to jail.

  3. begob

    Donzinger’s disbarment appeal decision is here:

    I thought it might give a new angle on the matter, but the court’s basic point is that the contempt ruling can’t be re-litigated. The decision turns on the recommendation to lift the disbarment going too far and failing to take proper account of the facts.

    As far as I can tell, the substantive findings of contempt on witness tampering – “egregious” – have been upheld on appeal, and I haven’t seen the main issue of “no judge in his own cause” raised before a court. Head scratcher.

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