On Friday, Judge Loretta Preska sentenced human rights attorney Steven Donziger to the maximum sentence of six months in federal prison for the petty misdemeanor contempt of court charges filed by Judge Lewis Kaplan, a pro-Chevron former tobacco industry lawyer. Preska handed down this sentence despite multiple calls for Donziger’s release, including from the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, several members of U.S. Congress, the European Parliament, 68 Nobel Laureates, and virtually every large international environmental justice and human rights organization, including Amnesty International.
The charges were prosecuted by corporate law firm Seward & Kissel, appointed by Kaplan himself. This is a firm that had Chevron as a client only a couple of years ago, and its lead lawyer, Rita Glavin, recently left to defend Andrew Cuomo from multiple sexual harassment allegations. Kaplan also hand-picked Preska to try the case. This makes Kaplan the “aggrieved party,” the person who filed the charges, picked the prosecutor, selected the judge, and still remains a judge officially assigned to the case. None of this bears any resemblance to what high school students in the U.S. are taught about “exceptional American justice.”
During sentencing, Preska dismissed the recent decision by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention saying she would “take it for what it’s worth.” This decision directs the U.S. government to immediately release Donziger and compensate him, citing that his detention is a human rights violation. The respected human rights body also said that both judges – Kaplan and Preska – had shown “a staggering lack of objectivity and impartiality.”
Demonstrating a complete lack of understanding or concern for the human rights situation in Latin America for those who work to protect human rights and the environment, Preska employed a brutal metaphor that “only the proverbial two-by-four between the eyes will instill in him [Donziger] any respect for the law.” Then, Preska even denied Donziger bail pending an appeal of the decision. His legal team has one week to challenge that denial and if he loses he will have to report to federal prison for six months to file his appeal while incarcerated.
While the actions by Judges Preska and Kaplan and law firm Seward & Kissel are shocking, they are not surprising. Key powers within the U.S. Congress, executive branch, and judiciary have been unwilling to respond in any way to egregious abuses of power and injustices that violate the basic tenets of U.S jurisprudence. Their inaction and inability to address the gross attacks against Donziger and the evidence of Chevron’s corruption expose the inordinate power that the fossil fuel industry has over the U.S. government – including its courts.
Although it was not Chevron’s intention, the international coverage of this story and the growing outpouring of support for Donziger and the affected communities in Ecuador has grown exponentially since the trial began. This movement will continue to place considerable pressure on the Biden Administration to intervene and put an end to the farce that has placed the interests and profits of the second-largest oil company in the U.S. over those of affected communities and their advocates.
Together, we must make sure President Biden takes steps to not only right this terrible wrong, but turn the focus back to the real crime: Chevron’s deliberate dumping of 16 billion gallons of oil waste into the Ecuadorian Amazon. This pollution continues to bring death and destruction daily and as long as Chevron is not held accountable, this case will stand in the way of any dreams for climate justice.
As Annie Leanord, Co-Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, said about Donziger’s sentencing:
“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. 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. Donziger’s fate could have lasting effects on environmental and corporate accountability activists, against whom threats and legal harassment are already escalating. While today may come as a blow to the environmental community, we know we cannot shy away. We must double down before it’s too late.”