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Demonstrators rally in support of Steven Donziger

Climate activists gathered to support human rights attorney Steven Donziger in New York City on June 10, 2021. (Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

'Extractive Industries Everywhere Are Watching': 9 Democrats Urge DOJ to Free Steven Donziger

The lawmakers asked AG Merrick Garland to "act immediately to reclaim control of this case, dismiss the charges, and free Mr. Donziger from his imprisonment."

Kenny Stancil

Nine U.S. House Democrats on Monday urged the Justice Department to "take immediate action" to secure the release of Steven Donziger, a human rights attorney who helped thousands of Ecuadorians win a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against oil giant Chevron and is now incarcerated on a contempt of court charge that experts say is retaliatory—and which followed two years of pre-trial house arrest, a violation of international law.

"The DOJ must intervene in this case to show polluting companies that the Chevron model for avoiding responsibility for environmental catastrophe will not be tolerated."

In a letter addressed to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, the progressive lawmakers—Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Jesús G. "Chuy" García (Ill.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (Mass.), Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), and Raúl M. Grijalva (Ariz.)—wrote that Donziger's case "has shocked the worldwide community of environmental justice and human rights advocates and creates a distinct chilling effect on this type of advocacy going forward."

"Mr. Donziger," noted the lawmakers, "has done nothing but uphold the highest professional ethics in representing and protecting his clients but has since been thrown in federal prison for petty contempt charges, a first in United States history. Mr. Donziger began serving a six-month sentence for petty contempt of court at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Connecticut on October 27, 2021, despite the many calls from the international legal community that his pre-trial detention for over 800 days was a violation of international law."

"Mr. Donziger sits in a crowded federal prison because a Chevron attorney made it so, without Executive Branch supervision or ever seeing a jury of his peers," the lawmakers continued. "As the United States is a party to the District Court case against Mr. Donziger, we request that you act immediately to reclaim control of this case, dismiss the charges, and free Mr. Donziger from his imprisonment."

"The international legal community," they added, "is appalled by what has transpired in the Southern District of New York and the Department of Justice's commitment to a just rule of law requires immediate action."

In 2011, following years of work by a Donziger-led legal team, which represented more than 30,000 Indigenous people and farmworkers harmed by over three decades of oil drilling in Ecuador, Chevron was found guilty of deliberately dumping more than 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and other hazardous pollutants in the delicate Amazonian ecosystem—resulting in a "rainforest Chernobyl" that has caused widespread suffering throughout the local population. The fossil fuel corporation was ordered to pay $18 billion in damages, a sum that was reduced to $9.5 billion in 2013.

Although the ruling was upheld by three Ecuadorian courts, Chevron moved its operations out of the country to avoid paying for clean-up, alleged that the settlement had been fraudulently obtained, and launched a yearslong campaign to demonize and prosecute Donziger.

In 2014, U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York, a former corporate lawyer with investments in Chevron, ruled—based on the false testimony of an Ecuadorian judge named Alberto Guerra, who received $2 million in cash and benefits from Chevron and later admitted to lying—that Donziger had acquired the historic judgment through "corrupt means."

Donziger's detention began shortly after Kaplan held Donziger in contempt of court in July 2019 for refusing to turn over his computer and cell phone to Chevron, a move that would have disclosed privileged client information.

While the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York chose not to prosecute Donziger's misdemeanor contempt of court charge, Kaplan hand-picked a right-wing colleague, Judge Loretta Preska, to hear the case.

Kaplan and Preska, previously a leader in the Chevron-funded Federalist Society, then selected Rita Glavin, an attorney at Seward & Kissel LLP, to act as a special prosecutor even though her law partner was a former member of Chevron's board of directors and Chevron had been one of the firm's clients.

In April of this year—prior to Donziger's trial, which began in May and ended in July when Preska found him guilty—six House Democrats urged Garland to immediately review what they called "an unprecedented and unjust legal assault" on Donziger, pointing out that the DOJ had failed to exercise its oversight authority over the case even as a corporate law firm that represents Chevron was enlisted to prosecute him.

Earlier this month, however, the DOJ submitted a friend-of-the-court filing that encouraged the federal appeals court reviewing Donziger's contempt conviction to "reject his argument that his prosecution by private attorneys violated the U.S. Constitution's appointments clause," Reuters reported.

Donziger is not alone in objecting to the use of private prosecutors in the federal court system. Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) echoed Donziger's concerns in a July letter sent to Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

In their new letter to Garland, the nine House Democrats pointed out that in September, the same week that Donziger was sentenced to six months in prison, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD)—made up of independent experts appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council—argued that Donziger's "deprivation of liberty is a violation of international law and that the trial against him and the judges involved, specifically Federal District Court Judges Lewis A. Kaplan and Loretta Preska, fail international fair trial standards, including the perception of impartiality of the courts."

"The WGAD also concluded that the deprivation of liberty appears to be in retaliation for Mr. Donziger's work as a legal representative of Indigenous communities in Ecuador, that he should be freed immediately, and that he is due compensation for these violations," the lawmakers added.

"When the U.N. and international environmental and human rights communities repeatedly call for immediate action," wrote the lawmakers, "the Biden administration must not remain silent."

"The Biden administration must send a clear signal that it stands with communities harmed by pollution."

Instead, the letter states, "the Biden administration must send a clear signal that it stands with communities harmed by pollution and environmental destruction and the lawyers courageous enough to represent them and not the corporations that benefit from polluting the water, air, and land of local people."

"An esteemed U.S. human rights attorney is being unjustly imprisoned by our very own courts in violation of international law, not for some real harm he did, but for protecting his vulnerable clients and his ability to serve them from one of the most toxic companies the world has ever seen," the letter continues.

The lawmakers emphasized that "Chevron does not dispute that its predecessor company Texaco deliberately discharged at least 16 billion gallons of toxic oil-drilling waters over the course of decades as a cost-saving measure. This grave injustice at the hands of a U.S. corporation was premeditated and remains an untreated toxic waste site the size of the island of Manhattan. Every day, the communities living amongst Chevron's mess must deal with ongoing exposure to toxicity known to cause cancer as the Amazon rainforest—one of the world's most critical ecosystems—pays the price."

A failure to "act immediately to rectify the unprecedented and unjust imprisonment of Mr. Donziger" is likely to cause long-lasting damage to the rule of law, democracy, and the planet, the group warned Garland.

"Extractive industries everywhere are watching this story to see if Chevron has just completed their proof of concept, that with enough money for lawyers and corporate-friendly judges, a polluting company can turn a judgment rendered against them into a RICO charge against the lawyers and the victims," says the letter. "Mr. Donziger is living proof that Chevron has succeeded, and other companies and industries will replicate this model, turning victims and their lawyers into fraudsters and criminals, culminating unbelievably in actual prison time."

"The DOJ must intervene in this case," the lawmakers stressed, "to show polluting companies that the Chevron model for avoiding responsibility for environmental catastrophe will not be tolerated by our justice system."

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