On Monday morning, after spending nearly three years confined, human rights attorney Steven Donziger held up the release papers he’d been waiting 993 days for and sent a brief video message to followers of his social media accounts proclaiming “it’s over.” Donziger served an excessive sentence for refusing to compromise attorney-client privilege in the face of an order filed by Chevron to obtain devices like his computer and cellphone because, the company alleged, they believed Donziger had engaged in conspiracy and criminal conduct. To those new to Donziger’s personal legal saga, the thought of a multibillion dollar super-polluting company using all its might against a single individual seems absolutely ridiculous. What’s even worse is Chevron has vowed to spend a “lifetime” waging war against Donziger and the clients he represented—all because they challenged the company for dumping 16 billion gallons of contaminated water into waterways in Ecuador that include parts of the Amazon rainforest.
Donziger first took up the case in 1993 and ultimately won those impacted by Chevron’s actions an $18 billion judgment against Chevron, the amount of which was reduced to $9.5 billion but still stood. For holding Chevron accountable, the fossil fuel company’s legal team mounted a defense that included alleging Donziger had bribed the judge who oversaw the case in Ecuador. That judge was, for a time, paid a $10,000 monthly salary by Chevron and later admitted to rehearsing his testimony with Chevron’s team dozens of times. Chevron was relentless in its attacks on Donziger. The polluter filed RICO charges against him and found a sympathetic judge who once had ties to the tobacco industry to hear the case. The back-and-forth led to Donziger’s law license being suspended in 2018; he was eventually disbarred in New York in 2020. The judge ordered Donziger to submit his electronic devices to Chevron, Donziger refused to do so and appealed, and the judge charged him with six counts of contempt of court. This is just a brief summary of the harassment Donziger’s endured and the havoc Chevron has wreaked against him, which has been condemned by the U.N., U.S. lawmakers, environmentalists and activists across the world, and Nobel laureates.
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Days before his release, Donziger released a video message thanking supporters but shifting the focus on the Ecuadoreans he represented, vowing to continue the fight to hold polluters like Chevron accountable. This echoes statements from his newly launched Substack, Donziger on Justice, which the lawyer is hoping continues driving the community built in support of his release toward the sustained goal of environmental justice. Donziger, a former journalist, said he’s eager to return to writing as a means of further the cause. “I love journalism and I can’t wait to begin writing in this space on regular basis,” Donziger said, though he admitted that mainstream media coverage of cases like his are rarely covered with the same fervor as with “the governmental persecution of human rights lawyers in other countries.”
“In fact, Attorney Ted Boutrous of Gibson Dunn both represents the New York Times on media issues while trying to destroy my life on behalf of Chevron, work for which he bills $1,200 per hour,” Donziger continued. He had more charges against the paper but also concluded by vowing not to “turn my back on my clients in Ecuador nor on the larger battle for human rights and judicial accountability around the world.” Indeed, Donziger hasn’t given up the fight, just as Chevron has stuck to its company goals of raking in as much cash as possible—consequences to the planet and the vulnerable be damned. Also on Monday, Accountable.US released a report on the drastic uptick in compensation Big Oil CEOs received in 2021 compared with 2020. On that list? Chevron’s Mike Wirth, who got a $4.5 million bonus last year for god knows what, moving his total compensation well above $22 million for 2021. In contrast, Donziger’s entire way of life and primary career have been crushed by the company.
But his spirit certainly hasn’t. Donziger will be attending and celebrating his release at a block party in Manhattan later this evening.