Chevron’s disgraceful persecution of human rights lawyer Steven Donziger

Instead of paying billions in damages owed for horrific pollution of Ecuador’s rainforest, the oil giant is hounding and demonising its accusers.

Proletarian writers

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In 2011, Steven Donziger was the leading plaintiff in the successful class action lawsuit representing 30,000 Ecuadorians against Texaco. The oil giant was found guilty of deliberately dumping huge quantities of toxic wastewater into the rivers of the Amazon rainforest. As of today, Mr Donziger has spent over two years under house arrest, convicted on absurd charges by a corrupt and farcical New York court. This is the truth behind our rulers’ oft-repeated claims to be upholding ‘civilised values’ and the ‘rule of law’. The truth is that in the imperialist system, might is right: there is one law for us and another for them.

Proletarian writers

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A decade has passed since the landmark ruling against Chevron by Ecuador’s supreme court for the crime of deliberately polluting large areas of the Amazon rainforest, yet the oil barons continue to refuse to pay the $18.5bn damages order.

Instead, their company has conspired with the US judiciary to discredit the case and persecute one of the plaintiffs’ leading attorneys, Steven Donziger. If ever proof was needed that US imperialism has zero respect for the ‘rule of law’, despite its unceasing proclamations to the reverse, this is it.

In 1993, 30,000 Ecuadoreans, mostly campesinos (peasants) and indigenous peoples living in the Amazon rainforest, filed a class action lawsuit in a United States court against Texaco, alleging the deliberate dumping of 18.5bn gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and streams, the spilling of 17m gallons of crude oil, and the leaving behind of hundreds of Olympic-sized pools of waste that continue to leech toxins into surrounding soil and water.

The dumping, carried out by the monopoly capitalist oil corporation in order to save $3 a barrel on production costs, took place from 1964 to 1992 and affected an enormous 1,500 square kilometres.

This pollution devastated crops and livestock, affecting thousands of people, as well as contaminating the water supply they rely on for drinking, bathing and fishing. It caused a spike in cancer rates and has pushed many indigenous groups to the brink of extinction.

Joe Berlinger’s documentary film Crude shows the extent of the damage caused by Texaco’s operations in Ecuador, which has been dubbed the world’s worst oil-related disaster, even beating BP’s Gulf of Mexico spill in 2010.

Ecuadorian justice not for sale after all

Chevron inherited the lawsuit when it merged with Texaco in 2001, and requested that the case be tried in Ecuador – presumably because it expected the law there to be less stringent and its courts more receptive to pressure from big business. Accordingly, in 2002, a US court ruled that Ecuador had jurisdiction, whilst exacting a promise from Chevron that it would accept the decision of the Ecuadorian courts.

In February 2011, after 17 years of litigation, the court in Ecuador found Chevron liable for the disaster and ordered it to pay $19bn in remediation, later reduced to $9.4bn by the supreme court on appeal. This was the biggest award ever made against a corporation outside the US and was hailed by environmental and human rights campaigners worldwide as a landmark victory for ordinarily voiceless and defenceless peoples over the usually all-powerful big oil.

The judgment against Chevron has since been confirmed on its merits and for enforcement purposes by three appellate courts in Ecuador and three more in Canada, including the highest courts of both countries.

However, to avoid paying up, Chevron moved its assets out of Ecuador, forcing the plaintiffs to seek enforcement actions in Canada, Brazil and Argentina for confiscation of the company’s assets – but to no avail.

US justice most certainly for sale

Moreover, days before the initial 2011 ruling in Ecuador, Chevron filed a civil RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act) (a law originally passed to aid prosecution of the Mafia) suit against the plaintiffs’ lawyers in New York City. The corporation accused (don’t laugh) US human rights attorney Steven Donziger and his colleagues of bribing an Ecuadorean judge, of ghost-writing the court’s damages judgment, and of “fixing” scientific studies.

In 2014, Lewis Kaplan, a former US tobacco industry defence lawyer and now the judge presiding over the RICO case against Donziger, concurred with Chevron, finding Mr Donziger guilty of leading a “multifaceted racketeering conspiracy”. Even Amnesty International has pointed out that the farcical proceedings which came to that conclusion were far from constituting a proper trial, however.

In remarks made before the trial began, for example, Judge Kaplan lampooned Donziger and offended his indigenous clients, whilst singing the praises of Chevron, demonstrating unmistakable bias in the case.

Having assured themselves of their man, Chevron dropped its claims for damages two weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin, thus removing the requirement for the case to be heard by a jury and leaving the decision to the judge alone.

Then, during the trial, Judge Kaplan denied the defendants the opportunity to present scientific evidence of Chevron’s pollution and corrupt activities in Ecuador, refusing to examine or consider the evidence that had caused Ecuador’s courts to reach their conclusions. The judge did allow Chevron to present witnesses, on the other hand, whose identities were not disclosed and who could not be effectively investigated or cross-examined owing to alleged ‘security threats’.

Chevron even relocated an Ecuadorian judge, Alberto Guerra and his family, to the US, paid for his health insurance and his car and met with him more than 50 times before bringing him to testify that Donziger had discussed a supposed bribe with him at a restaurant in Quito. Guerra has since admitted that his testimony was exaggerated in parts and totally untrue in others.

As part of the appeal process after this travesty of a ruling, Judge Kaplan ordered Donziger to submit his computer, phones and electronic devices to Chevron – to allow the corporation to search for his assets! Donziger refused, arguing that to do so would violate attorney-client privilege, and appealed the order on constitutional grounds.

While Donziger’s appeal against the order was pending, Judge Kaplan charged him with six counts of criminal contempt of court – for failing to comply with his orders to submit his electronic devices and passport, and for failing to drop all attempts to collect the damages owed by Chevron.

Then, in a virtually unprecedented move, Judge Kaplan appointed a private law firm, Seward & Kissel, to prosecute Donziger after the Southern District court of New York declined to do so. Seward & Kissel represented Chevron directly as recently as 2018 – a fact that neither Judge Kaplan nor Seward & Kissel disclosed.

Furthermore, rather than using the standard random assignment process in selecting the judge who would preside over Donziger’s privatised ‘trial’ for criminal contempt, Judge Kaplan chose one of his friends, senior district judge Loretta Preska. Displaying even greater partiality and ferociousness, Judge Preska, who is head of the Federalist Society (a pro-corporate US legal group funded by Chevron and other big fossil fuel companies), duly convicted Donziger of criminal contempt without a jury and without allowing him to testify on his own behalf.

Judge Preska was so unconcerned with maintaining even a semblance of proper procedure that she even read her newspaper during the trial. Clearly, the guilty verdict was never in doubt.

Steven Donziger has, as a result of this corrupt and privatised prosecution, spent more than two years in home detention – eight times the maximum sentence ever given before to someone convicted of such a misdemeanour. Judge Preska has ordained that he is only allowed to leave his flat for medical appointments and certain legal meetings.

Rallies calling for Mr Donziger’s release and for a boycott of Chevron have been held in 18 cities around the world. Hundreds of lawyers, academics and human rights activists have signed a letter of solidarity with him and against the US state and Chevron – for Donziger’s continued persecution sets an extremely dangerous precedent in allowing corporations to punish those who try to hold them accountable for their crimes.

Capitalist-imperialist system exposed

There are good reasons for the singular lack of interest in Mr Donziger’s case in western corporate media outlets, for Chevron’s legalistic persecution, conducted in conjunction with the full complicity of the US state, can teach us several important lessons.

First, we can see quite clearly imperialism’s contempt for its much-touted ‘rule of law’ principle. Our charlatan politicians epitomise the height of hypocrisy when they wag their fingers at China – which has been known to execute capitalists for committing similar crimes – whilst wilfully ignoring the plight of Donziger and the thousands of Ecuadorians he so steadfastly defended.

Second, we can see the depths to which monopoly capitalists will stoop to in their quest for maximum profit.

Third, the fact that Chevron has so far spent over $6bn on legal fees related to this case rather than on cleaning up its mess shows the absolute irrationality of the capitalist-imperialist system.

Fourth, a key feature of capitalism is illustrated: namely, that profits are privatised whilst losses are socialised. Chevron earned billions out of oil drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon, but the Ecuadorian people saw none of that vast wealth; instead, they were left to bear the brunt of the environmental destruction it wreaked.

Last, we can see the real role of the law and the judiciary under capitalism, which is to control and subjugate the working class. As Karl Marx explained in The German Ideology (written in 1845-46 in collaboration with Friedrich Engels), the law exists only for the sake of private property – a fact rooted in history. And the judiciary, which administers the law, is both a purveyor and preserver of bourgeois ideology.

As Lenin pointed out in 1917: “The court is an organ of power. The liberals sometimes forget this, but it is a sin for a Marxist to do so.” (The Question of the Bolshevik leaders appearing in court by VI Lenin, 1917)

Although many lawyers aspire to serve humanity and progress, they are likely to be disappointed when trying to achieve such aims via a legal system that has been specifically designed to protect the interests of the imperialist ruling class and to preserve the capitalist economic system.

The best purpose such cases can serve is to rouse the justified indignation of the masses against the barbarity and iniquity of the present system, and to reinforce our resolve to organise for its replacement.

Justice for Chevron’s victims in Ecuador; free Donziger!