By CLIFF CONNER
Human rights lawyer Steven Donziger has spent over a month in federal prison for “contempt of court” after a vindictive counter-suit initiated by the oil giant Chevron. His appeal is scheduled to take place on Nov. 30. Below is an article on the trial by Cliff Conner; it originally appeared in Against the Current and is reprinted with permission of the author. We also reprint a letter from prison that Donziger recently released.
On Oct. 1, 2021, the sun rose in the east and Steven Donziger was sentenced to prison. Both events were equally predictable, but only the latter was a consequence of the systematic corruption of what is deceptively called the American justice system.
Donziger, a human rights lawyer who has waged a three-decade battle against corporate predators on behalf of Indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian rainforest, was given the maximum sentence of six months for a misdemeanor charge of “criminal contempt of court.” He had already been confined under house arrest for more than two years on that lowest-level misdemeanor charge, on which no previous defendant had ever been held for more than ninety days. Furthermore, the vindictive [federal] judge, Loretta A. Preska, refused to allow Donziger bail, which would release him from house arrest, while his lawyers appeal the sentence.
During the sentencing, Judge Preska declared: “It seems that only the proverbial two-by-four between the eyes will instill in him any respect for the law.” Nothing, however, could demolish public respect for American law more effectively than the affront to human decency her maltreatment of Steven Donziger demonstrates.
Judge Preska, a stalking horse for the Federalist Society, perfectly exemplifies the corporate takeover of the American legal system. While public attention has been focused on the stacking of the U.S. Supreme Court with right-wing judges, the Federalist Society has been diligently at work infiltrating the courts at all levels of the American judicial system with judges of Preska’s ilk.
In the 1990s, Donziger sued the fossil fuels giant Texaco on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorian villagers for polluting their lands and destroying their health. In 2013, he and his legal team won an unprecedented $9.5 billion judgment against the corporation (which in the meantime had been acquired by Chevron). Chevron never paid a penny of the award and retaliated by countersuing Donziger for “bribery” and “evidence tampering.”
It would not be mere wordplay to describe the prosecution of Donziger as persecution. He calls the extraordinary judicial assault against him “a plan concocted by Chevron to dismantle my life. They want to do this to avoid paying up and to turn me into a weapon of intimidation against the whole legal profession.” His trial, he accurately points out, was being conducted “by a Chevron-connected judge and prosecuted by a Chevron-connected lawyer” (The Guardian, March 28, 2021). After the sentencing Donziger tweeted, “One purpose of a show trial is to display the raw power of the state to demoralize the citizenry. Never let it happen.”
Just before the sentencing hearing, the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned Donziger’s court-ordered home confinement of more than two years as a violation of international human rights law and called for his immediate release. Amnesty International demanded that American officials “promptly implement the decision by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calling for the immediate release of Steven Donziger.”
At the sentencing hearing, Donziger reaffirmed his innocence. “I’ve been fighting through the law to help the people of Ecuador for almost 30 years,” he stated. “For that reason, I cannot today express remorse for actions that I maintain are ethical and legal and that I am appealing.”
“Never forget what this case is really about,” Donziger tweeted on the morning of the sentencing. “Chevron caused a mass industrial poisoning in the Amazon that crushed the lives of Indigenous peoples. Six courts and 28 appellate judges found the company guilty. Fight on.”
Steven Donziger’s letter from prison
I am finally able to write directly from inside the belly of the beast: the federal prison in Danbury, CT. I am now on day 23 of my incarceration, and the experience has been nothing short of mind-blowing. I am living with another person in a 54 sq ft cell; next door is a 37-year-old man, one of the kindest people I have ever met. He was sentenced to a 35-year term for gang violence when he was 19. Three people in my unit of 80 or so men are lifers and have over 30 years in the system.
The length of the sentences for various crimes is astounding. We are unique as a country for the extraordinarily punitive nature of our criminal justice system. And it sickens me to see it from the inside. All of us here are simply raw material for a business built largely on money and politics that has virtually nothing to do with rehabilitation (although there are staff here working miracles against all odds to help inmates adjust to the outside).
This is considered a “low” security prison, but the conditions are extremely limiting. No Internet, almost no newspapers, limited phone calls and email, and almost no contact with the outside world. The food is scarce; no fresh vegetables, little fruit, extremely small portions which forces the mostly impoverished inmates to supplement their diets by buying junk food at the commissary where prices can be 50% higher than the corner store in New York City. It can take weeks for a visitor to get approved; one man has not seen his kids (now aged 5 and 7) in two years because of COVID restrictions. There is a total shortage of staff, programming, and no way to get a college degree. I will only be able to write very infrequently, if at all.
Having said that, please consider this: Chevron and Judges Preska and Kaplan thought they could snuff out my advocacy by dumping me into this place. They could not be more wrong. Not only is the prison bubbling with humanity and kindness, the likes of which one rarely sees on the outside, but the support for me and the affected communities of Ecuador both in my unit and around the world has literally exploded as a result of this obvious act of corporate persecution. I am becoming stronger, more resilient, and more understanding as a person. And I have almost boundless energy to continue the fight as a result of sharing this largely miserable experience with so many people from all walks of life.
I am getting dozens of letters a day from around the world. My friends in the unit love it when the letters come. Some read them and slap their knees with incredulity. How can one prisoner get so much mail? Others remove the stamps to use as “currency,”Â an off-the-books economic system that allows inmates the autonomy to trade goods and services among themselves.
In the meantime, here is a concrete update on case developments:
- My appellate argument to overturn Judge Preska’s “conviction” of me in the Chevron-financed non-jury contempt trial will take place on Nov. 30. This is an extremely accelerated schedule which shows the concern of the court that a great injustice might be taking place. That said, I believe judges in New York generally are closing rank behind Kaplan and Preska because our campaign has been so effective that it has challenged the institutional credibility of the federal judiciary as a whole. While I am always optimistic, I fully expect to lose this appeal and spend the balance of my six-months sentence in prison. That said, my legal team already has decided it is likely we will take the issue off the nation’s first corporate prosecution to the US Supreme Court if necessary.
- Our support in Congress is growing by leaps and bounds. A new letter organized by Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Chuy Garcia demanding my immediate release is gathering signatures as we speak. The letter urges The Biden administration to “send a clear signal that it stands with communities harmed by pollution and environmental destruction and the lawyers courageous enough to represent them and not the corporations that benefit from polluting the water, air, and land of local people.”
- Law students nationwide are preparing to organize a work boycott of the two corporate law firms (Seward and Gibson Dunn) that Chevron has used to try to demonize and prosecute me. The Seward law firm should really be ashamed; that firm has been held by the United Nations to be in violation of multiple provisions of international law by prosecuting me.
- Several human rights organizations are launching a campaign on Nov. 29 to demand President Biden pardon me — both because it is the right thing to do to correct the injustice, and also to bring the US government into conformity with international law consistent with the ruling from the United Nations.
Now, the money question. We need more funds to carry forward with these and other important activities. We need to pay people to support themselves to do this vital work. While I am locked up, the campaign must not just continue but also get stronger and more effective. Because of the incredible efforts of so many people, including my wife Laura and legal assistant Matt Burton, we are succeeding. In fact, the day I reported to prison, we gained 20,000 new followers on Twitter and many more on Instagram.
I know many already donated on the financial end. If you are not in a position to help now, please don’t worry; your support is being expressed in so many other ways and is deeply appreciated. But if you can dig deep and match your previous donation, please do. If you have not given, please consider making a donation. We are building this big with the ultimate goal of not only getting me out of this institution as soon as possible but also to put our human rights legal team in a position to finally hold Chevron fully accountable and force it to pay the full amount of the pollution judgment to the Indigenous peoples and farmers in Ecuador’s Amazon.
To donate to Steven Donziger’s defense effort, see:
Photo: Steven Donziger speaks with Huaorani women in Ecuador at start of trial against Chevron in October 2003. (Dolores Ochoa / AP)