AU undergrad alum and attorney Steven Donziger speaks out about serving 1000 days of arbitrary detention

Steven Donziger, who sued Chevron for $9.5 billion for environmental damages to the Amazon, travels the world speaking out about global environmental injustice and petitions to the Supreme Court

AU undergrad alum and attorney Steven Donziger speaks out about serving 1000 days of arbitrary detention

Steven Donziger, American University undergraduate 1983 alum and attorney, filed a lawsuit in August of 2011 against Texaco after suing the corporation for environmental damages in the Ecuadorian Amazon on behalf of over 30,000 Indigenous and Ecuadorian citizens who had been negatively affected by the extraction of oil

In response, Chevron, which merged with Texaco in 2000, filed a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) suit against Donziger that same year in New York City under U.S District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan’s court. The RICO case was filed on the grounds of released footage in which Donziger discussed “politically controlling the court” to his favor. 

Environmental organizations accuse Kaplan of holding investments in Chevron during 2014 when he had ruled the judgment made in Ecuador was invalid due to Donziger being guilty of racketeering, extortion, wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. 

The case included the testimony of Alberto Guerra, a former Ecuadorian judge, who claimed Donziger had bribed him and ghost wrote his testimonies. However, in 2015, Guerra later testified to an international tribunal that “parts of his testimony were either exaggerated or untrue.” Donziger was disbarred in 2018 from practicing law in New York based on Kaplan’s ruling. 

Kaplan charged Donziger for six charges of criminal contempt on the basis that Donziger refused to hand over his personal computer and communication devices while he was trying to appeal the case. Kaplan appointed Seward and Kissel to prosecute Donziger, a private law firm that has represented Chevron multiple times

While on house arrest for over a year and a half, Donziger was found guilty of all six charges in July 2021. After serving 45 days in prison and over 900 days of house arrest for charges of criminal contempt, Donziger was freed on April 25th, 2022 and has since been speaking out about his experience to international audiences including Stockholm +50.  

The Washington College of Law’s Environmental Law Society hosted a conversation with Steven Donziger in April 2022. The event was held over Zoom as Donziger was still on house arrest. 

Donziger’s case and arrest inspired Logan McPherson, a 2022 graduate from WCL and former Executive Chair of the WCL Environmental Law Society, to host a discussion series about political prisoners: “I thought it was wild that a large corporation could come after one individual to silence them. So I became really passionate about political prisoners.” 

McPherson initially reached out to Donziger in November of 2021, but he was unexpectedly sentenced to prison early. While he was serving time in Danbury Prison, according to McPherson, COVID restrictions prisoners only allowed one visitation per month and McPherson didn’t want to take that time away from Donziger’s family. 

Once Donziger was freed, McPherson reached out again but didn’t expect a response: “It’s so hard because he spent so long in prison and was now on house arrest so you don’t want to ask more of him. But he’s so passionate about sharing his story and was willing to.”

During McPherson’s individual call with Donziger and the Environmental Law Society event, Donziger was called multiple times by the Halfway House facility that monitored him during his house arrest. 

“He told me he’ll get these calls at 3am sometimes and if he doesn’t answer they’ll send him back to prison,” McPherson said. 

Despite the frequent disruptions during the event, Donziger’s composure and passion never wavered, and he eagerly answered questions from law students and professors who attended the event. 

“He’s just as passionate as you would think, and it was really inspiring. I was a bit starstruck,” McPherson said. “A lot of people I think could be beaten down by that. It would be easy to think ‘I don’t even have a chance, what's the point’, but it’s too important to sit down and be quiet about.” 

Donziger appealed to the Supreme Court to petition a writ of certiorari in an attempt to have the U.S court recognize that he was wrongfully sentenced to prison and house arrest. However, the Supreme Court denied his petition for a review. 

Donziger recently met with Indigenous Chief Leonidas Iza, who led a week-long protest against environmental justice in June of 2022. Demonstrators shut down oil drilling sites and took to the streets for 18 days in opposition to environmental destruction in the Amazon and sharp increases in gas prices, a testament to how the injustice Donziger attempted to sue against persists. 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include more accurate information about Donziger's case, as well as clarifications regarding the outcome of Donziger's case. 

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