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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Chevron v Steven Donziger

Those of us who consider themselves on the left of the political spectrum all understand how corporations and powerful individuals can easily capture and control not just institutions and governments, but the law itself. The examples of this are too numerous to mention. However, the case of Steven Donziger v. Chevron stands out in its sheer audacity.

Seldom has there been such an egregious assault on environmental activism, civil and human rights as this one. Renowned human rights attorney Steven Donziger is the guy who took on corporate oil giant Chevron over environmental pollution and destruction in Ecuador and won a settlement of $9.5 billion for indigenous communities. He put forward compelling and devastating evidence demonstrating that between between 1964 and 1992, Texaco (now Chevron) dumped 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and pits. After fifty-four judicial site inspections it was empirically shown that the average Chevron waste pit in Ecuador contained 200 times the contamination allowed by US and world standards, including illegal levels of barium, cadmium, copper, mercury, lead, and other metals that can damage the immune and reproductive systems and cause cancer. It was, after all, a small country, Ecuador--and Chevron was allowed to completely ignore regulations which helped balloon profits--to the tune of 5 billion dollars over 20 years.

Like the criminal thugs they are Chevron promised that if the victims continued with the case, they would be involved in a “lifetime of … litigation.” Donziger and his clients were unfazed. It took his team 8 years, representing the poorest of the poor to persuade the courts to rule in favour of the plaintiffs. Both courts at the Appellate and Supreme court level confirmed that Chevron was wholly responsible for the contamination and ruled that they should fork over 9.5 billion to those affected.

However, following the trial, Chevron took all its assets from Ecuador, left the country, and has flouted the judgement refusing to pay while alleging that the verdict was based on fraudulent witness testimony. Since then Chevron has waged a shameless and despicable war to take Steven Donziger down.

We have all heard how corporations use the law to impose SLAPP suits (Strategic lawsuit against public participation) on anyone who exposes their lies or environmental carnage. They spend millions on corporate lawyers and call in favours from politicians and judges in order to ‘turn the tables’ on environmental organizations, activists, journalists, human rights and environmental lawyers. They do everything possible to ruin reputations and destroy the individuals who have exposed their utterly depraved and loathsome operations.

In Donziger’s case Chevron bribed witnesses and presented false evidence to lobby for Donziger to be suspended as a lawyer without a hearing. Prominent U.S. lawyers, including First Amendment scholar Martin Garbus and Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson, have advocated on his behalf—but they simply do not have Chevron’s power or money.

However, destroying Donziger’s legal career was just the first step. The next chapter in this case is something new and unprecedented: Chevron managed to persuade a US Federal Court judge into punishing him using criminal statutes.

Donziger is, at this moment, under house arrest and waiting for a trial on a completely bogus charge of contempt of court—a decision that has currently been condemned by twenty-nine Nobel laureates and justices as ‘judicial harassment’. Initially, Chevron was allowed to file a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) suit against Donziger. That, in itself, tells you just how insanely upside-down things have become in our corporate dominated world: human rights and environmental lawyers are, from the perspective of private corporate tyrannies, considered criminal organizations! RICO statutes have been used to criminally prosecute groups like the Hell's Angels as well as the Gambino and Bonanno crime families.

The problem is that Chevron has a US district judge, Lewis Kaplan, a long-time supporter of Chevron (and before that a lawyer for tobacco company Philip Morris), in their back pocket.

Kaplan ordered Donziger to hand over his cellphone and computer as evidence and the latter refused simply because this would be a wholesale abdication of attorney-client privilege. He was subsequently charged with contempt of court by Kaplan. You can familiarize yourself with the gory details of this case by listening to an interview of Steve Donziger by Chris Hedges:

You can also read about this case here and here.

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