Supporters Rally for Steven Donziger as Chevron's Trial Aimed at 'Silencing Critics' Begins
Human rights defenders spoke at a rally in New York City Monday ahead of what they called a “show trial” for attorney Steven Donziger, who was held in contempt of court in 2019 by a prosecutor with ties to the fossil fuel industry.
Donziger won a historic $9.5 billion judgment against oil giant Chevron in 2013 over the company’s dumping of 16 billion gallons of oil into the Amazon in Ecuador. That ruling has been upheld by three Ecuadorian courts, but Chevron has gone to great lengths to avoid paying the settlement.
Donziger’s federal trial—without a jury—began Monday morning, with right-wing Judge Loretta Preska presiding. As Common Dreams reported last week, Preska is a leader in the conservative Federalist Society, which has backing from oil giant Chevron—the corporation at the center of the case against Donziger.
Dozens of supporters arrived at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse in Manhattan to speak out against the misdemeanor charge against Donziger, which carries a potential six-month prison sentence and which, Donziger said in a video released Sunday night, is “an effort by corporate America, particularly the fossil fuel industry,” to “attack and silence their critics.”
Called “America’s first corporate political prisoner,” Donziger has been under house arrest for more than 600 days since U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York held him in contempt of court in July 2019, after Donziger refused to disclose privileged client information to the fossil fuel industry.
Kaplan is a former corporate lawyer with investments in Chevron. Aside from Kaplan and Preska’s ties to Chevron, the special prosecutor selected for the trial is a partner at a firm which once counted the oil giant as one of its clients.
The conflicts of interest in the case have led Donziger’s supporters to decry the attorney’s “persecution” and deem the federal trial a “kangaroo court.” Instead of paying the $9.5 billion settlement to clean up the pollution it dumped into the Amazon, activist and actress Susan Sarandon said at the rally, Chevron instead “chose to silence and persecute Steven…because it’s also a signal to other activists, to other people who are trying to save our environment that you will have dire consequences if you open your mouth and if you take legal action.”
Sarandon echoed the message shared by Donziger on the eve of the trial.
“I’m just a symbol that they want to go so they can use it as a weapon of intimidation to try to stop this work happening, to try to discourage lawyers and campaigners and human rights advocates, environmental justice campaigners from even doing this work,” Donziger told his supporters.
Donziger also noted ahead of the trial that two Chevron lawyers dropped out at the eleventh hour after planning to appear as key witnesses for the prosecution.
“They know when they take the oath they can’t lie any longer,” Donziger said. “This is what happens when the world watches.”
Donziger’s trial has garnered the attention of nearly 70 Nobel laureates and 200 law students who called on the Department of Justice in recent days to investigate and intervene in the case.
“We fear that this case will embolden further strategic lawsuits against public participation (‘SLAPP’) and deter other students from representing clients seeking to redress harm by corporations,” the students wrote in a letter released Sunday with signatories representing 55 law schools. “A successful campaign to criminalize Mr. Donziger would suppress the public interest advocacy that is crucial to a fair justice system and social progress.”
Progressive lawmakers including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.), and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) have also demanded that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland review Donziger’s case.
Donziger called on his supporters to “bear witness” to the trial and enter the courtroom during the trial if possible.
“We need as many people as we can to bear witness to what is really set up to be a travesty of justice,” Donziger said Sunday evening.
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