"Free Donziger" rally held in front of the Manhattan Court House as the Attorney Steven Donziger faces sentencing in a contempt case after he refused to disclose privileged information about his clients to the fossil fuel industry, in New York City, on October 1, 2021.
Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Environmental justice advocates and other progressives on Friday condemned a federal judge’s decision Friday to sentence human rights lawyer Steven Donziger to six months in prison — following more than two years of house arrest related to a lawsuit he filed decades ago against oil giant Chevron.
The sentence, delivered by U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in New York City, represents “an international outrage,” tweeted journalist Emma Vigeland following its announcement.
Donziger’s sentence came a day after the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said it was “appalled” by the U.S. legal system’s treatment of the former environmental lawyer and demanded the U.S. government “remedy the situation of Mr. Steven Donziger without delay and bring it in conformity with the relevant international norms” by immediately releasing him.
Donziger represented a group of farmers and Indigenous people in the Lago Agrio region of Ecuador in the 1990s in a lawsuit against Texaco — since acquired by Chevron — in which the company was accused of contaminating soil and water with its “deliberate dumping of billions of gallons of cancer-causing waste into the Amazon.”
An Ecuadorian court awarded the plaintiffs a $9.5 billion judgment in 2011 — a decision upheld by multiple courts in Ecuador — only to have a U.S. judge reject the ruling, accusing Donziger of bribery and evidence tampering. Chevron also countersued Donziger in 2011.
In 2019, U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York — a former corporate lawyer with investments in Chevron — held Donziger in contempt of court after he refused to disclose privileged information about his clients to the fossil fuel industry. Kaplan placed Donziger under house arrest, where he has remained under strict court monitoring for 787 days.
In addition to Kaplan’s own connections to Chevron, the judge appointed private attorneys to prosecute the case, including one who had worked for a firm that represented the oil giant.
Preska, who found Donziger guilty of the contempt charges in July, is a leader of the right-wing Federalist Society, which counts Chevron among its financial backers.
“As I face sentencing on Day 787 of house arrest, never forget what this case is really about,” tweeted Donziger on Friday morning, as he awaited 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.”
Donziger indicated Friday afternoon that he plans to appeal the sentence.
“Stay strong,” he tweeted along with a photo from a rally attended by his supporters Friday.
350.org co-founder and author Bill McKibben said on social media that Donziger “deserves our thanks and support” for “daring to point out that Big Oil had poisoned the rainforest.”
Rick Claypool, research director for Public Citizen, tweeted that Donziger’s case “perfectly encapsulates how corporate power has twisted the U.S. justice system to protect corporate interests and punish their enemies” — noting that as Donziger is ordered to prison for six months, members of the Sackler family recently won immunity from opioid lawsuits targeting their private company, Purdue Pharma.
“This ruling was done to deter ANYONE from crossing corporate special interests,” said progressive former congressional candidate Jen Perelman.