Free after 993 days of detention, US lawyer vows to continue fighting Chevron

Steven Donziger says it’s time to force the oil giant to pay a court-ordered $9.5 billion for rainforest oil pollution. Chevron: The judgement was ‘fraudulent’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Steven Donziger, in 2018. (video screenshot)
Steven Donziger, in 2018. (video screenshot)

Jewish American lawyer Steven Donziger was freed on Monday after 993 days of detention, including 45 days in prison, and vowed to continue his fight against the oil giant Chevron over a massive oil spill in the Ecuadorian rainforest.

Chevron, which has interests in two Israeli natural gas fields, has refused for years to honor a 2011 Ecuadorian court to pay $9.5 billion in compensation for extensive pollution.

The company claims that Texaco, which Chevron later acquired, was released from liability after it carried out a $40 million cleanup.

“While Chevron tried to silence me, I was able to build tremendous support from around the world,” Donziger wrote on Friday, giving his account of the saga.

“There is little doubt Chevron has failed and I have emerged from the experience even stronger,” he added.

“Now it is time for all of us to come together to build our movement for environmental justice to the highest possible level so we can force Chevron to pay the money it owes to the people of Ecuador — and so we can take on broader issues of human rights violations and environmental crimes that will put us in a much stronger position to save the planet.”

Responding to his release, the human rights organization Amnesty International called on the US government to honor an October call by a United Nations committee to launch a “full and independent investigation” of the circumstances surrounding the “arbitrary deprivation of liberty” of Donziger and to “take appropriate measures against those responsible for the violation of his rights.”

“The charges against and detention of Mr. Donziger appear to be retaliation for his work as a legal representative of indigenous communities,” said a report from the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which also found a “staggering display of lack of objectivity and impartiality” on the part of Judge Lewis Kaplan of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, who has handled much of the US part of Donziger’s case.

Amnesty also called on the government to quickly enact legislation against what are known as strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) suits. These aim to intimidate critics by having them shoulder the costs of a legal defense until they back down.

But Chevron hit back, charging in a statement Tuesday that “The Ecuador judgment against Chevron repeatedly has been found to be fraudulent. Steven Donziger is an adjudicated racketeer and fraudster who was disbarred for his illegal and unethical acts in the Ecuador case and held in civil and criminal contempt for flouting lawful court orders.”

“Tellingly, Donziger was fired years ago by his indigenous Ecuadorian clients for refusing to explain how he spent $20 million raised in their name.”

Donziger denies all Chevron’s claims against him.

Donziger and other attorneys sued Texaco in 1993 on behalf of 30,000 farmers and indigenous people from Ecuador’s Amazon region over pollution and health impacts from oil production. Chevron became the defendant when it bought Texaco.

Mariana Jimenez walks on her farm where burst oil pipes contaminated her land, near Lago Agrio, in Ecuador’s Amazon region, on July 30, 2006. In July 2018, Ecuador’s highest court upheld a $9.5 billion judgment against oil giant Chevron for decades of rainforest damage that harmed indigenous people. (AP Photo/Lou Dematteis, File)

Chevron did not dispute the fact of the pollution, but maintained that Ecuador’s state oil company, Petroecuador, was primarily responsible for the damage and that Texaco was released from liability after a $40 million cleanup.

A court in Ecuador ordered Chevron to pay $9.5 billion, but that judgment was later invalidated in New York by US District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who ruled in 2014 that it was obtained through fraud, bribery, witness tampering, and other misconduct.

Kaplan also said Donziger was guilty of obstructing justice, in part on the testimony of a judge in Ecuador, who said he was bribed.

Last July, US District Judge Loretta A. Preska ruled that Donziger was guilty of criminal contempt of court for defying Kaplan’s orders in the case, including refusing to turn over documents and electronic devices that the court sought to determine whether he had been profiting from the judgment against Chevron, which he is barred from doing.

Oil contamination in the Ecuadorian rainforest. (YouTube screenshot)

Donziger refused to turn over the materials,  citing reasons such as attorney-client confidentiality.

Donziger’s case has attracted the support of Nobel laureates including nine Peace Prize winners, more than 475 lawyers and human rights defenders worldwide, and a long list of bodies working in law, social and environmental justice, among them Amazon Watch, Greenpeace, Global Witness, Rainforest Action Network, and the Harvard Law School National Lawyers Guild.

Chevron, whose official internet site contains a special page called “The Facts About Chevron and Texaco in Ecuador,” last year bought Nobel Energy’s stakes in Israel’s two principal natural gas fields, Tamar and Leviathan.

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