M.Each of us will have felt the claustrophobic isolation over the past year, but attorney Steven Donziger saw extreme, very personal imprisonment when a pandemic hit and then raged around him in New York.
On Sunday, Donziger reached his 600th day of unprecedented house arrest resulting from a widespread Kafkaesque legal battle with oil giant Chevron. Donziger led a protracted crusade against the company on behalf of tens of thousands of indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest whose homes and health were destroyed by oil spill, to become, as he describes it, the victim of a “planned goal of a company to kill my life to destroy “.
Since August 2019, Donziger has been confined to his elegant Manhattan apartment, a bulky, court-mandated surveillance bracelet that he calls “the black claw” and that is permanently attached to his left ankle. He can’t even venture into the hallway or pick up his mail. Excluded trips to medical appointments or larger school events for his 14-year-old son require days in advance. An indoor bike is on the doorstep instead of alternative training options.
Steven Donziger’s security bracelet, tied to his ankle. Photo: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn
“There is no comparison to quarantine because I can’t even go for a walk outside. If my child is sick, I can’t go to the drugstore to get a prescription, ”said Donziger. “I never really understood freedom until I was put into this situation.”
The nights are hardest for Donziger when he has to struggle to take off his jeans over the box-shaped label and lie in bed next to his wife, “with the government still on his ankle”. Every morning he wakes up anxious. A flag reading “SOS Free Steven” sometimes flutters defiantly from the window, but efforts to end the unusually long detention have yet to be approved.
“It was brutally difficult for him,” said Paul Paz y Miño, deputy director of Amazon Watch, a conservation group affiliated with Donziger. “It put a lot of strain on him and his family. Chevron wants the tale to be that he is a criminal. The ramifications for the entire environmental movement against oil companies are terrifying. “
There are moments of relief, such as poking your head outside to enjoy a sunny day or speaking to your growing legion of indignant supporters who are now Alec Baldwin, Pink Floyd singer, Roger Waters, and dozen of Nobel Prize winners includes. “There is never a day off, I can never really relax,” said Donziger. “But in such a situation you grow or die. And I’ve grown. “
A fountain in the Amazon Peru. Donziger was first touched by his case with Chevron in 1993. Photo: Rodrigo Buendía / AFP / Getty Images
The dispute with Chevron is based on a landmark decision by the Ecuadorian courts in 2011 to convict the company of paying US $ 9.5 billion in damages to people affected by decades of polluted air and water. Chevron never paid, claiming Donziger and the Ecuadorian judiciary had committed “shocking levels of wrongdoing” and fraud.
But the web of events that followed that led to Donziger’s arrest and his legal license stripped confused even legal scholars. “Honestly, I scratched my head looking at this case,” said Larry Catá Backer, professor of international law at Penn State University. “It’s this strange multi-front battle with one extraordinary explosive development after another. It has this magical quality of annoying everyone involved. “
Donziger was first touched by the case that would devour his life as a young attorney serving as a public defender in Washington. In 1993, he joined a legal team investigating reports of pollution in the Lago Agrio region of northern Ecuador, which is on the country’s border with Colombia.
The Texaco oil company had been carving out drilling outposts in this area of the Amazon since the 1960s, leaving behind what Donziger calls “grotesque” oil pits the size of an Olympic swimming pool. The pollution flowed freely into rivers and streams that were used as drinking water by the indigenous people. Stomach, liver and throat cancers were reported to be more common in the area, as was childhood leukemia. “The people there are living in a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions,” said Donziger.
Donziger, a Spanish spokesman, became increasingly involved in the case and traveled to Ecuador hundreds of times to prepare a case for the local population. Despite lengthy attempts by Chevron to buy Texaco to block the case, the lawsuit eventually went to court and resulted in an historic verdict against the oil company.
Donziger’s high spirits were short-lived, however. Chevron claimed his team wrote an independent review and offered a $ 500,000 bribe to influence the verdict. Donziger denied any wrongdoing and the Supreme Court of Ecuador later upheld the original decision, but Chevron refused to pay the $ 9.5 billion in damages.
A US federal judge then approved the fraud allegations and denied the possibility of chevron ripping off the money in his home country.
Steven Donziger: “I never really understood freedom until I got into this situation.” Photo: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn
Donziger was held liable for millions of dollars in Chevron’s legal fees, and the company was granted the seizure of his laptop and cell phone. When he appealed and alleged the devices contained confidential customer information, Judge Lewis Kaplan hit him on charges of criminal contempt, which was upheld on appeal and resulted in his house arrest.
In one of the stranger episodes of that saga, Chevron moved Ecuadorian judge Alberto Guerra and his family to the United States, paid for his health insurance and a car while seeing him more than 50 times before testifying that Donziger discussed the bribe with him in a restaurant in Quito. Guerra has since admitted that his testimony was in parts exaggerated and untrue in others.
This deception, unprecedented length of detention for offense, legal lockdown, and personal financial annihilation have created a feeling of persecution in Donziger. According to Donziger, Kaplan’s behavior was “an abomination, unethical and abusive. I never thought this could happen in the US. “Other lawyers have raised major concerns about Kaplan. Chevron “captured” the judge, Donziger said, and now the oil company seems to be omnipresent in its fate.
His contempt charge is heard by Judge Loretta Preska, who served on the Advisory Board of the New York Chapter of the Federalist Society and took the unusual step of appointing a law firm who previously worked for Chevron, Seward & Kissel, after the Donziger prosecution the Justice Department had refused to take the case. “Why am I being tried by a Chevron-affiliated judge and prosecuted by a Chevron-affiliated attorney? It’s just wrong, ”said Donziger. “This is all part of a plan that Chevron has worked out to dismantle my life. They want to do this in order not to pay and to turn me into a weapon of intimidation against the entire legal profession. “
Christiana Ochoa, an environmental law expert at Indiana University, said Kaplan’s and Preska’s ties themselves do not show any prejudice and that Kaplan’s strong judgment suggests “not great behavior” by Donziger. However, she added that the severity of Donziger’s treatment was “strange” and that questions remained about the conflict of interest in his prosecution.
“It is certainly very important for companies like Chevron to protect themselves from liability for environmental damage,” she said. “You refused to apologize to the victims. You don’t want a crack in your armor. “
Steven Donziger supporters show their support in federal court in New York. Photo: Justin Lane / EPA
A Chevron spokesman said an international tribunal had confirmed Ecuador’s decision was “fraudulent” and denied that the company had persecuted its longtime adversary. “Donziger has no one to blame but himself for his problems,” said the spokesman. “The court has initiated the pending criminal case against him. Chevron is not involved in this case. “
In Donziger’s eyes, the only real corruption has occurred in the US system, not in Ecuador, a symptom of what he sees as the “colonial” mindset that airily dismisses judgments outside the US and obscures the ultimate protagonist of this saga, the people hat from Lago Agrio. Shortly before his house arrest in the summer of 2019, Donziger toured a few villages in Ecuador and discovered that some people he had met earlier had died of cancer. The poisonous pits persist despite a gradual attempt by the government to clean up.
“Human suffering is immense,” he said. “It was hard to see. Ultimately, this is not about me. It’s about what happened to these people. “