Title media by
Sneha Vaidya

In the self-proclaimed greatest country in the world, the United States’ hypocrisy regarding human rights has never been more apparent than in condoning oil company Chevron's relentless attacks against human rights lawyer Steven Donziger. And for a situation that seems so clear-cut in understanding Chevron’s wrongdoings, it is frankly unsurprising that Chevron’s crusade for Donziger’s imprisonment has been largely ignored.                    

The story of Chevron and Donziger’s contentious relationship unfolded in 2011, when Donziger brought litigation against Texaco (now Chevron) for the devastation it caused to the indigenious population in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Deliberately disposing of 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into the surrounding rivers and farmland, this failure to comply with environmental regulations has earned the corporation an extra $5 billion over 20 years and culminated in about 30,000 Ecuadorians being directly harmed. The toxic chemicals from the contaminated ground and waterways have caused cancer, miscarriages, skin conditions and birth defects to mostly Indigenous people and poor farmers. Other practices Chevron indulged in consisted of the open-air burning of gasses and the pouring of oil onto roads.

However, in 2011, Donziger was able to successfully ensure a $9.5 billion settlement in environmental damages to the Ecuadorian Amazon communities — a decision that reignited hope in the fight for climate justice.

But as always, corporations do what they do best: bulldoze the masses in order to keep the elite few satiated (who, ironically, never are).               

Instead of paying the victims, Chevron chose to embark on a retaliatory campaign against Donziger, Ecuador’s courts, and the victims. First, Chevron handpicked the firm — Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher — for representation; a firm that has been previously censured by England’s High Court of Justice for fabricating evidence. The firm unusually filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization, or RICO, statute against Donziger — statues that are instead contrived to prosecute organized crime syndicates (not a human rights lawyer). The firm claimed that Donzinger had committed racketeering by accusing him of bribing an Ecuadorian judge, fixing scientific studies, and ghostwriting the damages against Chevron. 

During the trial in 2014, Chevron disclosed their star witness: Albert Guerra, a disgraced former Ecuadorian judge that has admitted to receiving bribes. Guerra claims that Donziger had approved a bribe to an Ecuadorian judge and ghostwritten the final court ruling for the judge — statements now proven to be false. No other corroborating evidence was ever presented.   

“Chevron’s case rested on the testimony of a witness who was paid over $1 million,” said Donziger’s attorney in MotherJones magazine. 

It was Judge Kaplan — a former corporate lawyer that held financial investments in Chevron at the time of the decision — that agreed to hear this abnormal RICO case at the U.S. Court of Appeals’ Second Circuit in New York. Ultimately, he found Donziger guilty of bribery and fraud in a trial without jury. And still, after learning of Guerra’s confession to lying about Donziger in an international arbitration proceeding, Judge Kaplan states that his court “would have reached precisely the same result even without the testimony of Albert Guerra.”

If Donziger had been criminally charged with bribery, a jury would have been instrumental in assessing Guerra’s credibility. Instead, in the RICO case that was civil, the decision solely came down to Kaplan. That single choice has served as a precedent for the legal losses Donzinger has since endured. 

Kaplan ordered Donziger to relinquish his computer and cellphone to Chevron; however, citing attorney-client privilege, Donziger refused. In retaliation, Kaplan charged him with six counts of criminal contempt under Rule 42 and placed him under house arrest. According to Rule 42, Kaplan was prohibited from overseeing the ensuing contempt case, but not without hand-picking the judge and the prosecutors who would manage the case. He selected District Judge Loretta Preska, who has served on the advisory board of the Federalist Society, a group in which Chevron has been a considerable donor.  

And in an unprecedented move, Preska sentenced Donziger to six months in prison for misdemeanor contempt of court after already spending 787 days in home detention in 2021. Later, the illegitimacy of this sentencing was noted by the U.N., whose Human Rights Council found Donziger’s house arrest to serve as detention under international law; therefore, it was illegal for Preska to demand an additional six months in jail.

Ultimately, the real corruption in this tragedy originated from the inherent structures of the American legal system. The colonial mindset of our judicial system has dismissed the real victims: the residents in the Amazon Forest who continue to work on polluted land while also coping with the negative health side-effects. For example, Kaplan declared the Ecuador trial to not be “bona fide litigation” and degraded the victims, calling them “so-called plaintiffs.” 

Despite the protests for Donziger and repayment to the victims, a feasible form of justice seems to be hopelessly out of reach. 

Choosing between the Democratic party that has only done the bare minimum of believing in the climate crisis, versus the dangerous denial of the GOP can be bleak for voters when elections roll around. Relying on the Democratic party to undertake climate change seriously has already proven to be a disappointment. For example, any concrete or ambitious legislation, like the Green New Deal, that has aimed to tackle the crisis has failed to convince mainstream democrats into endorsing more aggressive climate policies. Additionally, not only did Biden’s Department of Justice refuse to comply with the UN demand that Donziger be released, but also graciously extended its support to Chevron by filing an amicus brief in support of his prosecution. 

The history and future of positive environmental legislation within the United States government is incredibly bleak. Even though progressive politicians like the squad — consisting of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Jamaal Bowman of New York and Cori Bush of Missouri in the House of Representatives — have been elected and continue to grow, their ineffectiveness in negotiating their power has been disheartening. In 2019, 43 Senate democrats voted “present” on the Green New Deal Resolution claiming that the vote would further cause political division when a time of unity is needed. And just recently, in 2021, even when progressives attempted to ensure that Biden’s Build Back Better Act, a $1.75 trillion spending bill that included key climate change provisions such as $555 billion allocated towards clean energy sources, would be passed in the Senate, Senator Joe Manchin casted the deciding no vote. 

For change to occur, clearing corporate’s pervading influences in media, government, and the legal system is essential. But this is akin to an almost impossible task. However, the collective action undertaken by the Free Steven Donziger movement has validated the importance of on the ground organizing. Climate activists' commitment in releasing Donziger from prison were able to achieve a small victory when Donziger was released from prison and will now serve the rest of his six-month sentence for contempt under house arrest. And so, despite the unrelenting attacks from big corporations like Chevron in the flight for climate justice, a rise in interest and momentum in the younger generation provides hope for the future.