Chevron’s political prisoner: Steven Donziger and the denial of environmental justice

More than a decade has passed since human rights attorney Steven Donziger helped win an unprecedented $9.5 billion judgment on behalf of 30,000 indigenous Ecuadorians against the oil giant Chevron that demonstrated how the company had dumped billions of gallons of oil waste into the Amazon’s forests and streams. But in 2016, a New York judge invalidated the verdict, claiming  “shocking levels of misconduct” by Donziger and the Ecuadorian judiciary. The judge then granted Chevron the right to seize Donziger’s laptop, phone and passwords. When he appealed, he was hit with contempt charges and placed under house arrest. After two years of confinement, this summer another judge found Donziger guilty of contempt. Now in jail and largely ignored by the mainstream media, lead blogger and podcaster, Michael Buchsbaum summarizes Donziger’s story while providing links to where readers can learn more about Chevron’s shocking abuse of judicial power.

Recent protest on Donzigers case in New York City. (Photo by Pamela Drew CC BY-NC 2.0)

Unprecedented injustice

Steven Donziger may be the only lawyer in US history to have ever been deprived of his liberty pre-trial on a misdemeanor charge.

But then nothing about Donziger’s situation makes sense, except for the notion that the world’s eighth largest oil company by revenue has over 9 billion reasons to silence him.

After winning environmental damages for the Amazonian communities against Chevron, Donziger has been victimized because of his success.

In the five years following the overturning of the guilty verdict against the company, Chevron has made his life a living hell.

First they created a publication to smear his reputation. Then with their virtually unlimited resources, they assembled a legal team of hundreds of lawyers from sixty law firms to try and ruin Donziger. They have gotten him disbarred, the state has seized his passport and his bank accounts are frozen and he owes enormous court fines and costs.

Legally ordered to give Chevron information on his clients, Donziger refused and was instead charged with criminal contempt and kept under house arrest for two years. Recently, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has decried this act a violation of international law while ruling Donziger had been denied the right to fair trial.

In October Donziger was sentenced to six months in prison and he surrendered himself to authorities at the end of the month.

Now in prison and at risk of contracting COVID-19, the man still refuses to give in.

Crimes against nature and humanity

Multiple courts in both Ecuador repeatedly found that Texaco and subsequently Chevron (as its parent company since 2001) over a 20-year period between 1964 and 1992 illegally discharged some 16 billion gallons of toxic waste from its oil sites into rivers, groundwater, and farmland that then leached into local soil and drinking water.

Their actions have been linked to increased rates of cancer and birth defects throughout the region.

Chevron’s refusal to adhere to any environmental regulations – which earned the company an extra $5 billion over that time – led to tens of thousands of Ecuadorians being directly harmed.

After filing appeal after appeal, Chevron’s guilt was upheld in both the Ecuadorian and Canadian Supreme Courts.

Finally in 2013, Donziger, on behalf of thousands of Ecuadorians, secured a $9.5 billion judgment against the oil giant – the largest human rights and environmental court judgment in history.

But the following year, a US court ruled that the judgment was unenforceable because it was obtained by fraud and racketeering activity and blocked attempts to collect damages from the oil behemoth.

In fact, Chevron completely turned the tables against Donziger, accusing him and his team of actions otherwise associated with mobsters and organized crime.

Chevron filed suit, demanding $60 billion in damages against Donziger. But two weeks before the case went to trial, Chevron dropped the monetary claim entirely to deny Donziger a jury trial and arranged that the case would be heard by a “friendly” judge.

With the money claim gone, Judge Lewis Kaplan had the option to deny Donziger’s request for a jury trial. And he did just that.

Subsequently, the court charged Donziger with contempt for refusing to hand over his computer, cellphone and other electronic devices to the court and essentially to Chevron, actions that would place his clients in grave danger.

However when Judge Kaplan asked the US Attorney to prosecute the contempt, they refused.

And here is where this unbelievable story truly goes off the rails:

First, instead of assigning the next judge at random, as required by local court rules, Judge Kaplan handpicked Loretta Preska, to preside over the contempt case.

Then, under a highly unusual procedure, Kaplan also appointed a private law firm, Seward & Kissel, to prosecute the case since the US Attorney had declined to go after Donziger on contempt.

So after waiving a jury decision, the current charges against him were brought not by the public court system, but by private prosecutors – also a first for the American judiciary.

However, the legal firm, Seward & Kissel, continues to have a direct tie to Chevron since the oil company has been their client as recently as 2018. But this was not disclosed until months into the trial. Still, Seward & Kissel remain as prosecutors.

Moreover, Judge Kaplan, himself a former corporate lawyer, held financial investments in Chevron at the time of the decision finding Donziger guilty of bribery and fraud in the jury-less trial – a fact also not disclosed during trial.

Worse, Judge Preska has also served on the advisory board of the very pro-business Federalist Society, a group to which Chevron for decades has been a substantial donor.

So to recap, the initial judge who referred Donziger to trial, the second judge who was asked to lead the trial, and the private prosecutors who tried him all have deep ties to Chevron.

And now Donziger is in jail.

In mid-November, the United State’s Department of Justice told an appeals court reviewing Donziger’s contempt conviction that it should reject his arguments that private prosecution violated his Constitutional rights, ostensibly siding with Chevron.

Corporate media silence

News of his detention has gained him the support of environmental activists, attention from independent media like the Guardian, Slate, and Democracy Now, and shout outs from celebrities such as Alec Baldwin and the former Pink Floyd singer, Roger Waters.

Over a year ago, Vice News posted a video on Chevron’s ecological crime that has had more than 1.7 million views.

Yet most US corporate media remains silent.

Given what is at stake for international climate justice efforts in the face of worsening climate change and increasing attempts to propagandize media, readers are encouraged to dig deeper into this story here, here and here.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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