Nobel Prize winners demand investigation of case against lawyer for Ecuadorian indigenous villages

May 5, 2021

By Kenny Stancil

Dozens of Nobel laureates on Tuesday demanded that the U.S. Department of Justice intervene immediately to stop the prosecution of human rights attorney Steven Donziger by a corporate law firm with ties to Chevron, which has relentlessly demonized Donziger since his legal team first won a multibillion dollar judgement against the oil giant in 2011 for polluting the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Steven Donziger

“We believe that a high-level review will reveal that the case clearly is a violation of Mr. Donziger’s rights and the rights of the affected communities in Ecuador,” wrote the Nobel laureates in a letter addressed to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Donziger, whose federal trial without a jury is scheduled to start Monday, has endured 635 days of house arrest on a misdemeanor charge that carries a maximum sentence of six months if convicted.

His imprisonment began shortly after U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York, a former corporate lawyer with investments in Chevron, held Donziger in contempt of court in July 2019 for refusing to disclose privileged client information to the fossil fuel company.

Tuesday’s letter from the 68 Nobel prize winners representing every discipline was written in support of an April 27 letter from Democratic Reps. Jim McGovern (Mass.), Cori Bush (Mo.), Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Jamaal Bowman (N.Y.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), and Jamie Raskin (Md.). Last week, those U.S. lawmakers urged Garland to order an immediate DOJ review of Donziger’s case, as Common Dreams reported.

In their letter, the Nobel laureates wrote:

“We have a deep and abiding interest in peace and justice, in upholding our international system for the protection of human rights, and in protecting the environment. We do not believe that fairness and justice will be served unless the Department of Justice reviews the judicial procedures involved in this unorthodox case, reasserts main jurisdiction over the case, and conducts a review of the baseless charges against him.”

Owing to the work of the Donziger-led legal team, which represented more than 30,000 Indigenous people and farmworkers harmed by over three decades of oil drilling in Ecuador, Chevron was found guilty of deliberately dumping more than 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater and other hazardous pollutants in the delicate Amazonian ecosystem—resulting in a “rainforest Chernobyl” that has caused widespread suffering throughout the local population.

Although the ruling was upheld by three Ecuadorian courts, Chevron moved its operations out of the country to avoid paying for cleanup, alleged that the $9.5 billion settlement had been fraudulently obtained, and began what the House Democrats described last week as an “unjust legal assault” on Donziger.

While the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York chose not to prosecute Donziger’s misdemeanor contempt of court charge, Kaplan hand-picked a right-wing colleague, Judge Loretta Preska, to hear the case.

Kaplan and Preska, a leader in the Chevron-funded Federalist Society, then selected Rita Glavin, an attorney at Seward & Kissel LLP, to act as a special prosecutor even though her law partner was a former member of Chevron’s board of directors and Chevron had been one of the firm’s clients.

Noting that justice is called into question “when a U.S. corporation is able to wrest the power from the government to prosecute the lawyer who helped to hold it accountable for human rights abuses, abetted by judges with their own conflicts of interest,” the Nobel laureates implored Garland “to right these wrongs.”

The Nobel laureates and Members of Congress have joined more than a dozen human rights organizations in denouncing the unprecedented legal attacks on Donziger and calling on the DOJ to take action.

In a statement, 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams said that “a nation that wants to lead on climate issues can’t let multinational oil corporations pervert the democratic process and silence its critics.”

“If the Department of Justice refuses to intervene in the prosecution of Steven Donziger,” she added, “it would not only be a gross miscarriage of justice, it would also be an abandonment of their commitment to climate action.”
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Credit: Common Dreams

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