Eye on the Amazon

How Chevron Made #FreeDonziger a Rallying Cry for the End of Oil

The campaign is now a global movement to protect and defend human and environmental rights against polluters

Last Friday saw the anniversary of a shameful chapter in the U.S. legal system and further proof of the dangerous control the fossil fuel industry has over government. It was the two-year anniversary of the house arrest of human rights lawyer Steven Donziger. This violation of human rights would easily be criticized by the U.S. State Department were it happening elsewhere, but the Biden Administration has remained silent, despite repeated requests to investigate.

Donziger is facing an unprecedented attack because he helped win one of the most important cases in the history of the environmental and corporate accountability movement in 2011. Ten years ago, Chevron was found liable for its deliberate pollution of the Ecuadorian Amazon and was ordered to pay $9.5 billion in damages to the affected Indigenous and campesino residents. The judgement has been affirmed by six appellate courts, including the Supreme Courts of Ecuador and Canada.

Since that time Chevron has denied justice to the people of Ecuador and refused to pay. It threatened the affected communities with a "lifetime of litigation" unless it dropped the case. The U.S. legal system has since failed the people of Ecuador by allowing Chevron to make good on its threat and ignore this judgment. Then, in an attempt to redirect the story, the oil company targeted Donziger and the people it poisoned in Ecuador with a criminalization campaign that has evolved into one of the largest corporate SLAPP suits in history.

We are witnessing a staged prosecution by an admitted criminal corporation – Chevron. It is prosecuting him directly via one of its private law firms after the regular federal prosecutor rejected contempt charges manufactured by Lewis Kaplan, a pro-Chevron judge, and former tobacco industry defense lawyer. Chevron attempts to paint Donziger as some sort of criminal for refusing an unlawful order to turn over his computer to the company – a way to redirect attention from its own crimes in Ecuador to avoid accountability. The U.S. government has allowed its court system to be used by Chevron as a mechanism for environmental racism and the suppression of the rights of environmental advocates.

But Chevron did not realize that in its persecution of Donziger it would mobilize tens of thousands to demand accountability against its pollution in Ecuador, and around the world. Last Friday, rallies calling for Donziger's immediate release took place in over a dozen cities including, New York, Los Angeles, Richmond, CA, Miami, San Antonio, Seattle, Jacksonville, Boston, Chicago, Vancouver and Toronto, Canada, Tel Aviv, Israel and also in Quito, Ecuador.

While Chevron might be able to point to small victories along the way, this movement to secure justice and end fossil fuel destruction has only grown stronger. The many rallies on Friday matched with new statements of support from Nobel Laureates, Members of Congress, and many others indicate that rather than demonizing Donziger, Chevron and their lawyers have made him into a symbol of resistance to the fossil fuel industry. 

At the same time that Federalist Society member judge Loretta Preska was issuing her guilty verdict saying Donziger was “guilty” of criminal contempt of court, two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee – Whitehouse and Markey – sent a letter to the Administrative Office of Courts. The senators questioned the “fundamental fairness” of the U.S. criminal justice system that allows private prosecutors to prosecute criminal charges. This case presents an obvious conflict of interest, by allowing a firm (Seward & Kissel) with direct ties to Chevron to prosecute Donziger. 

These Senators also pointed out that Judge Kaplan bypassed the rules by appointing Preska to oversee the case rather than allowing a random assignment. Senators Whitehouse and Markey are investigating how “Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 42” can be used to subvert the rights of individuals and shining a light on the judicial abuses that have allowed Chevron to attempt to silence Donziger. The Senate letter follows an earlier one from six Members of the House of Representatives also calling for an investigation.

This is exactly what the movement requires – exposure of the methods by which corporations are manipulating and abusing the system to suppress our work to hold them accountable. Steven Donziger must be freed immediately and Chevron and its law firm at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher should be investigated for its corruption, witness bribery, and intimidation tactics. 

Chevron should be made to honor the $9.5 billion it owes the people of Ecuador for a cleanup and the members of the U.S. judiciary who have abused the legal system to benefit Chevron – judges Kaplan and Preska should also be investigated. In fact, 200 lawyers already signed a misconduct complaint against Kaplan for his 10-year targeting of Donziger. Filed with the appellate court in New York, it was cavalierly dismissed without even an investigation. Congress should step because the federal courts (at least in New York) are incapable of policing themselves.

On October 1st, Preska will sentence Donziger. In an attempt to send a message to all defenders challenging corporations in the pursuit of human rights, Donziger could be sentenced to prison for six months even though he has already served four times that amount on house arrest. We must make sure Preska knows the world is watching and will not stand for this injustice. More voices must join the movement between now and Oct. 1st so that judges Preska and Kaplan recognize that their reputations are on the line and they will face public repercussions unless they release Donziger with "time served" while his appeal makes its way through the courts. 

We must resist. Donziger's persecution is what might lie in store for many of us in the climate movement as we fight to hold the destructive fossil fuel industry accountable for its actions. That is why we all must stand in solidarity with Donziger and the people of Ecuador. There can be no climate justice if climate advocates are criminalized and persecuted and the U.S. government continues to enable such abuses.

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