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Steven Donziger Won a $9 billion Lawsuit Against Chevron. Now He’s in Prison Amid Growing Calls For His Release

Nine U.S. lawmakers have appealed to Attorney General Merrick Garland for the immediate release of the lawyer.

The quarter-century saga of lawyer Steven Donziger’s suit against the oil giant Chevron, and the company’s unprecedented counterassault, has more twists and turns than the Amazon River. Years before Donziger's late-October sentencing to six months in federal prison, Brad Pitt and George Clooney battled for the film rights to the story. (Pitt’s production company won.)

In a recent Roundtable discussion of the extraordinary case, Paul Paz y Miño of Amazon Watch explained its origins in the arrival of Texaco (now Chevron) in Ecuador’s northwestern rainforest in 1964 to explore and drill for oil.

“They treated it like a trash heap for decades,” said Paz y Miño. “They were the sole operator from 1964 to 1992. They systematically and intentionally dumped at least 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into the Ecuadorian Amazon as a cost-saving measure. They have admitted to doing this.”

In 1993, after Texaco left the country, Steven Donziger arrived in Ecuador as part of a legal team suing Texaco on behalf of 50 indigenous plaintiffs representing 30,000 people whose communities and ancestral lands were poisoned. Eight years later, a Second Circuit federal judge approved Chevron's request to send the case back to Ecuador, on the condition that the company adhere to the decision reached by the Ecuadorean courts.The devastation Chevron left behind has been called "The Amazon Chernobyl." 

Oil pollution in the Ecuadorean Amazon continues to sicken local communities.

The devastation caused by Chevron's years in Ecuador has been called "The Amazon Chernobyl."

Donziger and the indigenous plaintiffs won the case in 2011—including an affirmation by Ecuador’s highest court—and Chevron was ordered to pay $9 billion dollars in damages to clean up the region and provide health care for affected communities.

Chevron rejected the decision and returned to the Second Circuit, where it filed a slap suit against Donziger and the Ecuadorians, alleging that the case was fraud.

The new judge, a former tobacco industry lawyer named Lewis Kaplan, ruled in 2014 that the verdict in Ecuador was obtained by fraud and thus unenforceable in the United States. Chevron's main witness was a corrupt Ecuadorean judge on the company's payroll.

Chevron, not satisfied with the victory, next pursued “a scorched earth attack against Donziger,” including an “onslaught” of motions demanding access to all of the lawyer’s computers, messages, and data, according to civil rights attorney Ronald Kuby, who is a member of Donziger’s legal team,

Donziger in Ecuador during the original class-action suit. 

Donziger in Ecuador during the original class-action suit. 

“He was at his kitchen table defending against Chevron’s unlimited money and unlimited lawyers. He refused to provide his computer, claiming attorney-client privilege,” says Kuby. “Judge Kaplan resorted to the most extreme sanction he has, which is to ask the Justice Department to indict Steven Donziger for contempt.”

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In a break with convention and precedent, Judge Kaplan used hand-selected private lawyers to prosecute the contempt case against Donziger.

“Judge Kaplan stayed on the criminal case himself,” said Kuby. “He brought the charges. He picked the prosecutors. Steven was convicted and sentenced to the maximum of six months in prison. It was a maximum only because they wanted to deprive him of his right to trial by jury.”

Kuby said Chevron’s overkill strategy was intended to send a message to others considering class-action suits on behalf of communities impacted by oil pollution. 

“The message was, ‘You will never beat us. We don't care how long you litigate this.’ You will never get paid by us. We will never be forced to ameliorate the damage that we've done, so don't even try,’” he said. “Donziger [pursued justice] for 30 years. Now he's bankrupt and in prison.”

The filmmaker and anti-fracking activist Josh Fox described his own experience at the other end of the oil industry’s wrath. “Before it was Donziger, I was public enemy number one of the oil industry. For five long years, they traced me all across this country. They went everywhere that I went,” Fox said, adding that when citizens bind together, they can beat large corporations and institutions. 

The terms of Donziger's unprecedented year-plus house-arrest required the lawyer to wear an ankle bracelet at all times.  

The terms of Donziger's unprecedented year-plus house-arrest required the lawyer to wear an ankle bracelet at all times.  

After more than a year of house arrest, Donziger began his six-month sentence at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut on October 27. On November 30, nine U.S. lawmakers published an open letter to the Department of Justice calling for his immediate release.  

“This case has shocked the worldwide community of environmental justice and human rights advocates and creates a distinct chilling effect on this type of advocacy going forward,” the letter stated. 

For more, see recent reports in the New York Times and Reuters, and this feature-length account of the backstory in Rolling Stone.  

Watch the full discussion: