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Steven Donziger

Imprisoned human rights lawyer Steven Donziger was transferred from a federal penitentiary in Connecticut back to house arrest on December 9, 2021. (Photo: Steven Donziger/Twitter)

100+ Groups Urge Biden to Pardon Human Rights Lawyer Steven Donziger

In a letter, the groups call Donziger's prosecution "one more example of how far powerful interests are willing to go in their quest to silence those standing up for justice and exposing their wrongdoing."

Brett Wilkins

More than 100 environmental and human rights groups on Tuesday sent a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden urging him to pardon Steven Donziger, the attorney under house arrest for refusing to hand over privileged client information in a high-profile environmental case.

"Powerful interests are... trying to send a chilling message to environmental activists around the world that fighting against corporate interests can cost them their liberty and more."

In the letter, the groups decry the prosecution of Donziger—who has been jailed in his home and federal prison since 2019—as "retaliation for his work in defense of the rights of Indigenous peoples in Ecuador who were victims of Chevron Corporation's oil dumping."

Donziger represented tens of thousands of Ecuadorian farmers and Indigenous people in a class-action lawsuit against Chevron that resulted in a multibillion-dollar judgment—which the fossil fuel giant has never paid—for its subsidiary Texaco's dumping of more than 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and pits in the Amazon rainforest.

In July 2021, a U.S. federal judge—who was previously a member of the Chevron-funded right-wing Federalist Society—found Donziger guilty of contempt of court for refusing to turn over his computer and cellphone to the oil major.

Last September, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said it was "appalled by uncontested allegations in this case" and called Donziger's detention apparent "retaliation for his work as a legal representative of Indigenous communities" and his refusal "to disclose confidential correspondence with his clients in a very high-profile case against a multinational business enterprise."

The new letter notes that the U.N. experts determined that Donziger's "deprivation of liberty is arbitrary because it violates several norms relating to the right to a fair trial, including the apparent lack of impartiality of the courts," as well as the "lack of independence, objectivity, and impartiality of the judge who ordered Mr. Donziger to remain in pre-trial house arrest for over two years in violation of his right to liberty."

"U.S. judicial authorities have thus far failed to take any action to remedy the situation and implement the working group's call to ensure Mr. Donziger's immediate release," the signatories write.

"Donziger's fate could have lasting effects on environmental and corporate accountability activists, against whom threats and legal harassment already loom large and are escalating."

"Steven Donziger's prosecution is one more example of how far powerful interests are willing to go in their quest to silence those standing up for justice and exposing their wrongdoing," the letter continues. "By doing so, they are also trying to send a chilling message to environmental activists around the world that fighting against corporate interests can cost them their liberty and more."

The signatories assert the urgency of Donziger's immediate release, as well as the implementation of additional measures "to ensure that corporations can no longer abuse the justice system to target and harass human rights defenders."

The letter concludes that "the continued reprisals against Steven Donziger are sending a worrying message to corporations in the USA and around the world that they can keep weaponizing the justice system to intimidate human rights defenders without any consequence."

Daniel Joloy, a senior policy adviser at Amnesty International—one of the letter's signatories—said in a statement that Donziger "is a human rights defender that bravely stood up against one of the most powerful corporations in the world. In response, he has endured years of harassment, intimidation, smear campaigns, and more than two years in arbitrary detention."

"President Biden must now listen to the over 100 human rights and environmental organizations calling to pardon Steven Donziger and ensure he is released immediately and unconditionally," Joloy added. "Allowing this ordeal to continue only sends a chilling message that corporations around the world can continue attacking human rights defenders without consequences."

Annie Leonard, co-executive director at letter signatory Greenpeace USA, said that "Chevron's legal attack on Donziger is not the first, nor will it be the last case of its kind."

"Right now, the right to dissent is being repressed by both our government and corporations," she continued. "While the severity of Donziger's fate may seem unprecedented, it is emblematic of the larger trend of silencing activists, many of whom are fighting for the solutions desperately needed to combat the global climate crisis exacerbated by multinational fossil fuel companies."

"Donziger's fate could have lasting effects on environmental and corporate accountability activists," Leonard added, "against whom threats and legal harassment already loom large and are escalating."


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