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Is Chevron’s Vendetta Against Steven Donziger Finally Backfiring?


Steven Donziger, the human rights lawyer who spent nearly three decades fighting Chevron on behalf of 30,000 people in the Ecuadorian rainforest, has been sentenced to six months in federal prison for “criminal contempt.” On October 1, in a lower Manhattan federal courtroom, Judge Loretta Preska justified imposing the maximum penalty by asserting that Donziger, now 60, had not shown contrition. She said, “It seems that only the proverbial two-by-four between the eyes will instill in him any respect for the law.”

In May, Preska had found Donziger guilty after a trial without a jury. And now Donziger, along with his family and scores of supporters, had to listen to the federal judge compare him to a mule who needed to be beaten with a piece of wood before complying.

Prior to sentencing, Donziger reminded the court in a polite and at times emotional statement that he had already spent 787 days under house arrest in his New York City apartment, a confinement that had put great pressure on his wife and teenage son. He explained that the court-imposed restrictions meant that his son had a father who was “unable to travel, leave his home except under narrow exceptions with court permission 48 hours in advance, unable to even go out for dinner, unable to have a father capable of doing all the things a father can do and should do with a child, including act with spontaneity.”

But even though Donziger was facing prison, he told the court he would not back down: “I have been attacked and demonized for years by Chevron in retaliation for helping Indigenous peoples in Ecuador try to do something to save their cultures, their lives, and our planet in the face of massive oil pollution. That’s the context for why we are here today.”

In response, Preska read out a prepared 50-minute statement for her harsh sentence. “Mr. Donziger spent the last seven plus years thumbing his nose at the US judicial system,” she said. “It’s now time to pay the piper.”

Donziger will not go to prison immediately. His attorneys will challenge the criminal contempt conviction, and they will also ask a higher court to put off his prison sentence pending that appeal. But Preska will keep him under house arrest, once again calling him a “flight risk.” In the past, she has warned that he “has ties to Ecuador,” insinuating that he would abandon his family and his New York City apartment to go live in the rain forest.

You can’t understand this latest injustice without looking back at Chevron’s long campaign against Donziger, who won a landmark pollution case against the oil giant in Ecuadorian courts in 2013. Chevron was ordered to spend $9.5 billion to clean up a contaminated area the size of Rhode Island, and to pay for the health care of the 30,000 plaintiffs whose communities have seen a rising number of cancer cases. Instead of following the legal order, Chevron launched a case in New York, and in 2014, a federal judge, Lewis Kaplan, convicted Donziger and some of his Ecuadorian allies of racketeering, bribery, and fraud. Then, Kaplan asked the federal attorney for the Southern District of New York to prosecute Donziger for “criminal contempt” connected to the original conviction. The federal attorney refused, so Kaplan handpicked an attorney from a private firm, Rita Glavin, to prosecute—a nearly unprecedented legal maneuver.





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