Environment Jake Johnson

Steven Donziger Walks Free After 993 Days of ‘Completely Unjust’ Detention

"He should have never been detained for even one day," said an Amnesty International official, "as it has been clear the whole process against him has been in retaliation for his human rights work that exposed corporate wrongdoings."
Environmental lawyer Steven Donziger shows his release papers on April 25, 2022 in New York City. (Photo: Steven Donziger/Twitter)

By Jake Johnson / Common Dreams

Human rights lawyer Steven Donziger walked free Monday after 993 days of detention stemming from his decades-long legal fight with Chevron, which deployed its vast resources in a campaign to destroy Donziger after he won a $9.5 billion settlement against the fossil fuel giant over its pollution of the Amazon rainforest.

“It’s over. Just left with release papers in hand,” Donziger wrote on Twitter. “Completely unjust that I spent even one day in this Kafkaesque situation. Not looking back. Onward.”

Read Chris Hedges’ columns on Donziger here and here, and listen to Robert Scheer’s interview with the environmental lawyer here. You can also read and watch reports by other ScheerPost contributors on the case here.

Donziger’s case has attracted global attention and outrage, with the United Nations high commissioner on human rights calling his prolonged detention a violation of international law. Lawmakers in the United States have also decried Donziger’s prosecution as an “unprecedented and unjust legal assault.”

“Corporations must not be allowed to continue abusing the U.S. justice system to silence and intimidate human rights defenders.”

“We are relieved that Steven Donziger will finally recover his freedom after almost 1,000 days of arbitrary detention, which included 45 days in prison and over 900 days under house arrest,” Daniel Joloy, senior policy advisor at Amnesty International, said in a statement Monday. “He should have never been detained for even one day, as it has been clear the whole process against him has been in retaliation for his human rights work that exposed corporate wrongdoings.”

“Corporations must not be allowed to continue abusing the U.S. justice system to silence and intimidate human rights defenders or anyone else exposing their wrongdoing,” Joloy added.

The legal battle began in 1993 when Donziger and other attorneys—on behalf of tens of thousands of farmers and Indigenous people who lived near the Ecuadorian Amazon—filed a class-action lawsuit against Texaco alleging that the company contaminated the rainforest with its oil drilling operations.

Chevron, which purchased Texaco in 2001, denied the allegations, but an Ecuadorian court in 2011 ordered the U.S. based oil and gas corporation to pay a $9.5 billion settlement—a ruling that Ecuador’s Supreme Court later upheld.

Claiming the settlement was fraudulently obtained, Chevron withdrew its assets from Ecuador, refused to pay the settlement, and launched a massive legal attack on Donziger, suing him in New York City.

“My prosecutor has financial links to Chevron, my judge has financial links to Chevron, the charging judge… has investments in Chevron.”

In 2014, a federal judge with ties to Chevron ruled that Donziger was guilty of a “pattern of racketeering activity,” a charge he has denied. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan’s decision was based on testimony from a witness who later admitted to lying.

When Donziger refused to comply with Kaplan’s order to hand his cell phone and computer over to Chevron, arguing that the devices contained sensitive client information, Kaplan charged Donziger in 2019 with six counts of criminal contempt and the attorney was placed under house arrest while awaiting trial.

After the Southern District of New York declined to take up the case against Donziger, Kaplan appointed a Chevron-connected private law firm to pursue the prosecution. Kaplan then chose U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska—previously a member of the Chevron-funded Federalist Society—to preside over the case.

“So my prosecutor has financial links to Chevron, my judge has financial links to Chevron, the charging judge, Judge Kaplan, has investments in Chevron, and they’re denying me jury,” Donziger said in an interview last year.

Last July, Preska found Donziger guilty on all six counts of criminal contempt of court, a decision he slammed as an “obvious travesty of justice.” Donziger was sentenced in October to six months in federal prison, where he remained until December, when he was transferred back to house arrest under a coronavirus-related early release program.

Given that Donziger spent more than two years in detention before even receiving a trial, his sentence has been deemed the longest “ever recorded for a misdemeanor charge.”

Human rights and environmental organizations have urged U.S. President Joe Biden to pardon Donziger, slamming his prosecution as “retaliation for his work in defense of the rights of Indigenous peoples in Ecuador who were victims of Chevron Corporation’s oil dumping.”

Donziger emphasized in a video posted to Twitter Sunday that Chevron is still pursuing a civil case against him:

Joloy of Amnesty International said Monday that while Donziger is finally free from detention, “the end of this sentence does not mean the end of the injustices Steven has faced.”

“The U.S. government,” said Joloy, “must fully implement the decision of the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, including launching an impartial and independent investigation into the circumstances that led to Steven’s arbitrary detention, to prevent something like this from happening again.”

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

20 comments

  1. Irony in this quote: “Corporations must not be allowed to continue abusing the U.S. justice system to silence and intimidate human rights defenders.”

    The so-called rule of law designed way before the Pilgrims Progress or Hispania Invaders set foot on this continent, always designed for the gentry, the land owners, the royal mutants, and the banks. So, fast forward 500 plus years, and you have the United Snakes of America run by a system of law that is bought and sold by the corporation. US Chamber of Commerce on crack cocaine. SCOTUS all from the ranks of the rank Ivy League, and we know what law schools and clerking do to the mind. Amazing that guys like Donziger get out of that corrupt system with a zealotry to help the small man and woman, or to help communities. But alas, he does everything right, and the corrupt system, with Big Oil and Big Banking and Big Law, still cuts him down to size, and cuts the very people he was defending into a million pieces.

    That is the law, parsing and parsing until the victim is the perp, and the perp is the victim. And I am not being cynical. Like all systems of hierarchy, they must be chopped down. These people also are sociopaths, hence, the bizarre world of locking up guys like him, or shall we say, Julian Assange, anyone?

  2. A law should be passed that any Corporation found to have interfered with or abused any person promoting human rights in any way shape or form, will be abolished because of the corrupt practices involved. There must be Zero tolerance with these Fascist evil organizations that wield their strength recklessly to the detriment of humanity!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Welcome to the corporate totalitarian state, otherwise known as the USA. This same state that allows private corporations to own and run the so-called government. The same state that is the world’s number one terrorist organization that creates endless wars and overthrows governments with little outrage let alone any sanctions, all the while feigning outrage against other nations such as Russia when they do the same thing. The same state that steals from the poor and the so-called middle class to enrich the tiny minority at the top running the shit show that passes for democracy and keeps the citizens clamoring for their own demise. The same state that rewards the police for killing citizens for such things as a traffic stop and bursts in unannounced to murder innocent folks like the serial killing thugs they are. The same state that allows mentally insane sociopaths to run for government office who then do everything in their power to divide and destroy the citizens and to enrich themselves all the while convincing those same said citizens to keep on voting for them. The same state that will keep us all burning fossil fuels that will inevitably lead to most if not all life on earth going extinct. Steven Donziger is the equivalent of yet another canary in the coal mine as we lurch rapidly and endlessly into the abyss of death and insanity. We are in the end days and the dystopian shit show is just beginning to unfold in exponential ways that one can barely fathom. Welcome to the USA. Rah, rah, rah…

  4. The Judges who were obviously BIASED and CORRUPTED should lose their jobs, and be arrested for incarcerating Donziger. This is a Corporation run out of control, with no regard for human life. Chevron should be terminated because it values money like a God. And treats human beings like the evil entity it is.

  5. Huh? Why do you write, “Lawmakers in the United States have also decried Donziger’s ….”, without mentioning ANY of the VERY FEW U.S. Lawmakers (none with any influence) who showed support for Donziger?

  6. Everything we thought we knew is slip, slip, slipping away. We are prisoners of our culture and MSM, our enjoyment of lifestyle based on the backs, deaths, and resources that are stolen by CIA coups, some of which used to benefit our incredibly wasteful US lifestyles but now is only bulging the pockets of a few truly insane people.

  7. If you view this as some sort of victory you are mistaken. They locked up a lawyer for nearly three years for the crime of defending his clients interests, and totally got away with it. Message sent loud and clear to any attorney in the future of what is in store for them if they too try to challenge the machine.

    My bet is you will never hear about Steven Donziger taking on big oil again. He would be crazy if he did.

    The Rule of Law is dead.

  8. Something tells me that Cracker Joe Biden will no more pardon Donziger than Julian Assange. We’ll see.

  9. Bitten is a scumbag who is in the pockets of Big Oil. His Big Oil and war profiteer donors would never countenance Russia supplying 70% of Europe’s energy capacity cheaply. How do you stop a pipeline that you’ve tried to kill for years when it is now completed, loaded and ready to go online pending some pro forma paperwork? You start a war. Let’s not forget that these oil companies funded the CIA-backed violent neo-Nazi putsch that overthrew Ukraine’s constitutional democratically elected government in 2014. Bitten wanted a war and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He and his psychopath neocon clown car State Department killed diplomacy, stewarded the shredding of the peace framework – Minsk 1 and 2 – and poured gasoline on the fire shipping thousands of tons of lethal weapons to the crazies in Ukraine. The shelling of the Donbass resumed at elevated levels before and after the Russians recognized the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk. Bitten & Co. did everything possible to bait Russia into an incursion, handing them an Article 51 basis under the doctrine of collective defense. Of course, all wars are criminal – ask Bitten: he’s advocated every illegal US/NATO invasion from the late 20th century to the present. The fossilized faschole wouldn’t know justice if it hit him in the head like a 2 x 4: look what he’s done to Julian Assange. What makes you think he’d ever change his stripes to correct the injustices against Steven Donziger?

  10. Corporate deviance is nothing new. Doing something about corporate deviance- now that would be something new!

  11. I can’t remember seeing any of the mainstream media outlets covering this. Is the legal system compromised in this case or what ? I hope he sues the hell out of some of these players!

  12. I can’t remember seeing any of the mainstream media outlets covering this. Is the legal system compromised in this case or what ? I hope he sues the hell out of some of these players!

  13. The clear message regarding the treatment of Steven Donziger is – don’t fuck with the oil companies under any circumstances, and if you do, you will be crushed by our system of injustice- got it? This pathetic case was not even mentioned in the NYT or by the “most trusted source” at PBS news. Why am I not surprised?

  14. There are several major problems here, starting with Texaco/Chevron’s massive pollution in the Amazon.

    Second, it is literally fascist for a corporation to be allowed to criminally prosecute someone. This is the stuff of future dystopia books and movies. This happened as a perversion of the legal ability of private parties to step into the shoes of the government in order to SUE someone where the government can’t or doesn’t want to do so. But this should not be allowed for criminal prosecution, and the fact that it was is a HUGE problem that needs to be fixed.

    Third, judges with even the appearance of bias or a conflict of interest must be required to recuse themselves. These two corrupt judges had ACTUAL conflicts of interest and were clearly biased against Donziger, and they should never been on this case.

    Fourth, the U.S. should be required to enforce the judgment from Ecuador. Since the U.S. is willing to ignore it, other countries should ignore U.S. judgments.

    This was a totally outrageous situation that I couldn’t believe was allowed to continue. In the early 2000s after I became a lawyer, I met with some of Donziger’s team to discuss helping in this case. I can’t remember why I didn’t get involved, but I could have also easily ended up in prison like Donziger did. Bottom line here is that the U.S. judicial system is totally corrupt an useless regarding any major justice.

  15. Is there such a thing as the USA Justice system ? As an alien living in a far away Country its seems a broken and corrupted system.lt makes no sense to me that this Country can call itself “the land of the free and the brave.” and present this to the world as “the Gold Standard” for world order ..lt is quite delusional. Do the American people subscribre to this criminality or is this some cruel joke imposed by all powerful imposters ruling from an alternative reality?As for concluding the article by saying” this should never happen again ” well this story represents normal practice at the core of the US justice system.Just ask the many thousands incarcerated in their Penal system.

  16. the legislature writes the laws.
    Congress, with or without Executive branch approval

  17. Donzinger was prosecuted under RICO statutes, related to that he or his team suing Chevron paid bribes to get the huge judgement against Chevron. Those bribes seem to be substantiated in various published works. He did house arrest awaiting trial, but the jail time was for contempt (refusing to turn over evidence), which is standard stuff in any court and all lawyers know that. Contempt sends you to jail.

    It seems to me that the case is complicated and these pro Donzinger pieces never tell the full story, out of bizarre devotion related to his cause. On the other hand when the full story is not there, it’s often because it’s not complimentary. A court case has nothing to do with the cause. Who were his defense counsel, and why did they fail? Where’s the appeal? And why did the State of NY disbar him?

    He seems like a good man doing good work, and perhaps bribes are normal in South American courts. Unfortunately Donzinger has the usual mob of fans muddying the waters, writing up one or two line statements blindly claiming he was wronged because corporations suck, or America is imperialist. For those with low standards of legal review this is thinking. For me it’s reactionary.

    What would be best for him is a full and open review of his case that included no preferential attitude and was not an advert for Donzinger. That said I am impressed that a large body of law students have organized to prevent Chevron’s law firm from recruiting at their schools, that suggests perhaps there’s injustice here but I would have to see that it’s not just a cadre based on political affinity. Unfortunately the many Donzinger appearances in interviews are all preaching to choirs ready to cry for the plight of people wronged by big bad corporations. If his judges made errors, an appeals court process should be in play, his attorneys should have something to say, etc. Where’s the real review that unbiased people can use to accept his claims?

    1. @C. Kent
      You’re just spouting Chevron lies. Like the Chevron-connected corrupt judges in this case, you are so clearly biased toward the rich and their corporations that you have no credibility here.

      All of the allegations of bribery have been disproved, the people who claimed that later admitted that they were lying. Furthermore, the level of idiocy that it would take to believe that an environmental or human rights lawyer would bribe someone to get a verdict is unimaginable. It is in fact entities like Chevron and the people who run them who bribe public officials regularly, both legally (campaign contributions) and illegally. This is called “projection,” which is projecting your personality onto someone else.

      What your comments totally ignore is that the U.S. is as corrupt as anywhere. Allowing a corporation to criminally prosecute someone is outrageous and never should have been allowed. (What SHOULD be allowed is private citizens prosecuting oil companies like Chevron for wrecking our planet, but that’s another issue.) Allowing judges with ties to Chevron to remain in the case should never have been allowed.

      Even the United Nations, which is basically run by the U.S., has decried the great injustice here. But you want to play false equivalence and try to get people to feel sorry for Chevron. Gimme a break!!!

  18. Funny stuff, these chat rooms, where armchair what-have-you’s have all the inside news to print. Or they have that devil’s advocate bone to pick. Or, they just know hands down that a guy who was prosecuted by an inept and criminal injustice system — US law by any means necessary — has to have done “something” wrong. And, defending yourself, in the media, in interviews, what have you, well, these armchair chat room cats think that must speak to something wrong or things that are hidden.

    When you believe in this system of judges and laws, you are in the field of not the lords, but the devils. Hands down, judges are mostly bad, corporations are always bad somehow, and, the “real reviews that unbiased (sic) people can use to accept Donziger’s claims” is part and parcel the fuel of those big bad doubters out there, bloviating in the Scheer Chat Rooms.

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