In 2011, human rights activist lawyer Steven Donziger won a $9.5 billion judgement against Chevron, on behalf of 30,000 Amazonian indigenous people for Chevron’s responsibility in producing hazardous waste that severely impacted local communities’ health, including dramatic increases in birth defects, miscarriages, and cancer rates. As Christine MacDonald reported for In These Times in February 2020, as a result of extortion charges filed by Chevron against Donziger, the lawyer is currently under house arrest in New York, with his law license suspended, while Chevron has refused to pay any of the court-ordered settlement.
Chevron filed its case under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, also known as RICO. In 2014, a US district judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, concluded that Chevron—not Donziger’s Ecuadoran plaintiffs—was the victim, and that Donziger and his legal team were guilty of bribery and fraud.
In July 2019, Kaplan, found Donziger guilty of criminal contempt. This ruling required Donziger and his legal team to return funds raised in an effort to continue their legal battle against Chevron, as well as requiring Donziger to make his personal electronics and passwords available for review. After Donziger appealed, Kaplan deputized a private attorney to prosecute Donziger in another US district court. In August 2019, Judge Loretta A. Preska placed Donziger under house arrest.
As Paul Paz y Miño, associate director of Amazon Watch, an organization that supports the Ecuadoran plaintiffs, told In These Times, Chevron has tried to “turn this case into a story about [Donziger] rather than the actual pollution in the Amazon, one of the worst environmental oil-related crimes in history.” According to Canadian environmentalist Rex Weyler, through Kaplan and the US court system, Chevron is “hoping that the power of their money will tilt the scales of justice so far that they will never be held accountable.”
As Christine MacDonald reported for In These Times, “Kaplan’s rulings appear by design to send a chilling message to human rights lawyers: You could be disbarred, bankrupted—even thrown into jail—for challenging powerful corporate interests.”
Christine MacDonald, “He Sued Chevron and Won. Now He’s Under House Arrest,” In These Times, February 24, 2020, https://inthesetimes.com/article/22307/held-political-prisoner-by-chevron-stevendonziger-humanrights-housearrest.
“Global Human Rights and Environmental Communities Condemn the House Arrest of U.S. Human Rights Lawyer Steven Donziger,” Amazon Watch, November 14, 2019, https://amazonwatch.org/news/2019/1114-global-human-rights-and-environmental-communities-condemn-the-house-arrest-of-steven-donziger.
Student Researcher: Haley Hatch (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)