Steven R. Donziger (born September 14, 1961) is an American attorney known for his legal battles with Chevron particularly the Lago Agrio oil field case in which he represented over 30,000 farmers and indigenous Ecuadorans in a case against Chevron related to environmental damage and health effects caused by oil drilling. In 2013 Ecuadoran courts awarded the plaintiffs $9.5 billion in damages, which led Chevron to withdraw its assets from Ecuador and launch legal action against Donziger in the US. In 2011, Chevron filed a RICO (anti-corruption) suit against Donziger in New York City. As a result of this case, Donziger was disbarred from practicing law in New York in 2018, put under house arrest in August 2019 while awaiting trial on charges of criminal contempt of court, in July 2021, a US District Judge found him guilty; he was sentenced to 6 months in jail in October 2021.
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- I was not prosecuted by the U.S. government. I was prosecuted by a private law firm, Seward & Kissel, appointed by a federal judge after the U.S. government declined to prosecute me. And the judge never disclosed that the law firm had Chevron as a client. So, essentially, I’m being prosecuted by a Chevron law firm, a partner in a Chevron law firm, a private law firm, who deprived me of my liberty... this is the first corporate prosecution in U.S. history. I have never seen a case like this, nor have other legal experts that work with me. And, you know, we just think, you know, to restore the rule of law...this case has to be stopped and taken over by the Department of Justice. I mean, they could do what they want with it. I mean, if they went to prosecute me, prosecute me, but I need to be prosecuted by a neutral prosecutor, not by Chevron... What’s really happening here is Chevron and these two judges and, really, allies of the fossil fuel industry are trying to use me as a weapon to intimidate activists and lawyers who do this work, who do the frontline work of defending the planet. What’s... at stake is the ability to advocate for human rights in our society.
- I mean, the things I was charged with were — I was a lawyer litigating various court orders, you know, for years, ethically. You know, I’m proud of my work. And this judge just went after me. I’m the only lawyer ever in U.S. history to be charged with criminal contempt of court for challenging a civil discovery order on appeal. That’s essentially what happened.... Basically, Chevron, in the form of Texaco, its predecessor company, went into the Amazon of Ecuador and decided to create... literally hundreds of wells, where they deliberately dumped toxic waste into waters — into rivers and streams that Indigenous groups relied on for their drinking water, bathing and fishing, creating a mass industrial poisoning of a 1,500 square mile area. And literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people have died. I’ve been there over 250 times... The affected communities went to court... They won the case. Chevron has attacked me, attacked them, for 10 years, with the help of these federal judges... In the meantime, people are suffering... the degree of contamination is appalling. I mean, it is the Amazon Chernobyl. It’s the very definition of ecocide... it’s just a deliberate decision, in order to save money, to dump 16 billion gallons of cancer-causing waste onto Indigenous ancestral lands.
- I am wearing an ankle bracelet. It’s about the size of a garage door opener. It’s been on my ankle since August 6, 2019. I sleep with it. I eat with that. I bathe with it. It never leaves my ankle. And it allows the government to monitor my whereabouts on a 24/7 basis. I mean, the fundamental issue here is Chevron destroyed the Ecuadorian Amazon, and I was part of a legal team that held the company accountable. The decision in Ecuador has been affirmed by multiple appellate courts in Ecuador and Canada. What Chevron did is, rather than pay the judgment that it owes to the thousands of people in Ecuador that it poisoned, it’s gone after me and other lawyers. And in the United States, Chevron sued me for $60 billion, which is the largest potential personal liability in the history of our country.
Chevron then launched a campaign to really try to drive me out of the case. And as part of their strategy, they demanded to see my confidential communications with my clients, including everything on my cellphone and computer. And when I appealed that to the higher court here in New York, while the appeal was pending, Judge Kaplan charged me with criminal contempt of court for not complying with the order while the lawfulness of the order was under appeal. He then had me locked up in my home.
- So, what’s really happening here is, Chevronand its allies have used the judiciary to try to attack the very idea of corporate accountability and environmental justice work that leads to significant judgments. And I think they’re not only trying to retaliate against me; they’re trying to send a broader message to the activist community, to the legal community, that these types of cases, that truly challenge the fossil fuel industry, that are intimately connected to the survival of our planet, should not be allowed to happen in court, at least not at this level.
- Basically, since we won the case in Ecuador, I've been targeted with probably the most vicious corporate counterattack in American history involving dozens of law firms, 2,000 lawyers, probably a billion-plus dollars in professional fees. All with the express purpose by Chevron to demonize me, rather than pay the Ecuador judgment that the company owes to the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon...
As the case was coming to an end in Ecuador, Chevron's lawyers and executives made it clear they would never pay the judgment. They sold their assets in Ecuador, so the Ecuadorians would have nothing to collect. They threatened the Indigenous peoples with “a lifetime of litigation” if they didn't drop their case. They also started to attack Ecuador's judicial system... Chevron knew that the evidence against them was overwhelming, and they were going to lose the Ecuador case.
So they tried to come up with a strategy to block enforcement of the Ecuador judgment against their assets in other countries. To do that, they needed to somehow allege that the judgment in Ecuador was the product of fraud. The way they did that is they paid a former Ecuadoran judge, moved his family to the United States, paid his income taxes. Their lawyers coached him for 53 days. And ultimately he came into federal court and testified I approved the bribe of a trial judge in Ecuador.... He has recanted most of his testimony. He's admitted that he has repeatedly lied in U.S. federal court. He admitted under oath. He's thoroughly discredited...
- So Chevron has paid massive sums of money as part of a demonization campaign targeting me.... What they try to do is use the law and weaponize it to criminalize activism, and I'm Exhibit A. I don't think they've been really that successful. If you look at me online and see my following, there's a lot of people who believe me and know what is really going on here. They keep trying, but I'm also not sitting back. I'm putting what I believe is my truthful narrative out there every which way I can. And that's important.
Right now, now there's two narratives. There's the Chevron/Kaplan narrative. And then there's the Ecuador court/Donziger narrative, and they're competing. I happen to believe ours is truthful, and theirs is part of what I call Chevron's Big Lie.
...This goes way beyond me. It goes to really what kind of society we want in America. How does one man get so targeted by an oil company such that he's being prosecuted by one of their law firms? What does that mean for other advocates? What does that mean for environmental justice advocates and corporate accountability advocates and lawyers? What does that mean for our planet? Because if you can't do this kind of legal work to hold these polluters accountable, the destruction of the earth will happen at a faster pace.
- It has become clear to me in recent months that my unprecedented house arrest is the result of apparent misconduct and conflicts of interest by a number of people in the judiciary. It feels like Chevron has taken over the role of government to deprive its main litigation adversary of his freedom. That’s a terrifying prospect for me and my family, but also for everybody who cares about the nature of freedom and advocacy in our society. I don’t think it has ever happened before. I hope it never happens again.
- Quoted in Chevron Tightens the Screws on Steven Donziger, By James North, The Nation, May 28, 2020
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- Ahead of Steven Donziger's sentencing scheduled for Friday, five United Nations human rights experts ruled that the American attorney who won a multibillion-dollar judgment against Chevron in Ecuadorian courts has been "arbitrarily" detained in the U.S. for 787 days... The Ecuadorian organization that spearheaded the case against Chevron on behalf of Indigenous people impacted by decades of oil pollution in the Amazon—revealed the experts' recent conclusions about Donziger's detention in a statement Wednesday. The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, made up of independent experts appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council, said that it was "appalled by uncontested allegations in this case," noting that the U.S. government did not respond to its request for input... the working group called on the U.S. government to "take the steps necessary to remedy the situation of Mr. Steven Donziger without delay and bring it in conformity with the relevant international norms, including those set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights... Taking into account all the circumstances of the case," the working group said, "the appropriate remedy would be to release Mr. Steven Donziger immediately and accord him an enforceable right to compensation and other reparations, in accordance with international law." The experts also urged the U.S. government to "ensure a full and independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of Mr. Steven Donziger and to take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of his rights."
- Steven Donziger has been under house arrest for over 580 days, awaiting trial on a misdemeanor charge. It’s all, he says, because he beat a multinational energy corporation in court... Donziger is a human rights lawyer who, for more than 27 years, has represented the Indigenous peoples and rural farmers of Ecuador against Texaco—since acquired by Chevron—which was accused of dumping at least 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into the area of the Amazon rainforest in which they live. Cancer is now highly prevalent in the local population. Some have called it the "Amazon Chernobyl." They first filed suit in New York in 1993, but Texaco lobbied, successfully, to move the proceedings to Ecuador. In 2011, the team of Ecuadorian lawyers Donziger worked with won the case, and Chevron was ultimately ordered to pay $9.8 billion...Chevron, a $260 billion company, went to a New York federal court to sue...[Donziger]]...They later dropped their demands for financial damages because it would have necessitated a jury trial. That is something Donziger has been unable to get. Instead, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, a former corporate lawyer whose clients included tobacco companies, became Donziger's judge-and-jury in the RICO case. ...When the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York declined to prosecute the case, Kaplan took the extraordinary step of appointing a private law firm to prosecute Donziger in the name of the U.S. government. The firm, Seward & Kissel, has had a number of oil-and-gas clients, including, in 2018...
- The Chevron corporation’s legal onslaught against the environmental lawyer Steven Donziger continues. The oil giant and two federal judges in New York are apparently in a de facto alliance to persecute Donziger, who in 2013 helped win a landmark $9.5 billion legal victory against the company for polluting vast stretches of rain forest in Ecuador... Federal Judge Loretta Preska, who has already kept Donziger under house arrest in New York City for the past 10 months, on May 18 refused his request to relax his confinement before his trial for contempt, which will not start until September 9. Donziger’s attorney had asked Preska to allow him out of his Upper West Side apartment for three hours a day. Preska said no. She repeated her preposterous claim that Donziger could be a flight risk, saying, “I could be to the airport and on an airplane in three hours.” Donziger lives with his wife and 13-year-old son. He has already surrendered his passport.
- His attorney, Andrew Frisch, told Preska that her suggestion in a previous hearing that he might abscond to Ecuador is particularly unlikely now because that country is suffering one of the worst outbreaks of Covid-19 anywhere. What’s disgraceful is that the maximum jail sentence that Donziger would face if he’s found guilty of contempt is six months—less than half the time he will have already spent locked up... It is this kind of questionable conduct from the federal bench that prompted Frisch to file an emergency motion on May 11 at the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit accusing Preska and Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who has pursued Donziger since 2011, with “abuses of power and discretion.” Donziger’s supporters argue that Chevron’s own lawyers are collaborating in the effort to persecute him.
- For 60 years I have tried cases throughout the United States. I have represented unpopular defendants in the South before, during, and after the civil rights movement. But I have never seen anything like this attempt to destroy Steven Donziger. Chevron and its law firms have taken control of the awesome power of government to prosecute an environmental activist and deprive him of his liberty. They have done so with the active complicity of two federal judges. It’s something I’ve never before seen in my career.
- Martin Garbus quoted in Chevron Tightens the Screws on Steven Donziger, By James North, The Nation, May 28, 2020
- Meanwhile, the global support for Donziger is growing. Some 29 Nobel laureates, including nine Peace Prize winners, signed a letter calling for “a judicial remedy for the legal attacks orchestrated by Chevron against Donziger and for the defamation of his character.” More than 475 lawyers and human rights defenders worldwide signed another open letter, that called the struggle “one of the most important corporate accountability and human rights cases of our time.” So far, the mainstream press, with the exception of The Guardian, is still silent.
- Steven Donziger is one of the lawyers representing thousands of indigenous residents of Ecuador’s oil-rich Amazon whose battles with Texaco (which merged with Chevron in 2001) began over twenty-five years ago... In 1993, Steven Donziger and a team of lawyers brought the case before a federal court in New York (where Texaco was based) hoping to get a verdict from a jury. From 1964-1990, Texaco ran “all drilling, waste-disposal, and pipeline operations”in the region where the indigenous plaintiffs, many of them farmers, lived. Sixteen billion gallons of toxic waste had been dumped. Residents had organized protests against Texaco since 1986. Again, it is worth emphasizing this: the legal battle against Texaco began in 1993, just after the company had spent 26 years contaminating the Ecuadorean Amazon. Texaco fought for nine years to move the case back to Ecuador and filed numerous sworn statements praising Ecuador’s judiciary. Chevron, after absorbing Texaco in 2001, continued that key battle and won it in 2002.