By Jack Holmes
It's a beautiful day in New York, but Steven Donziger cannot leave his house. There’s an electronic bracelet around his ankle, and he is only permitted to leave for medical appointments, meetings with lawyers, and school events for his 14-year-old son. He needs permission from a pretrial-services officer each time—those are the terms of his house arrest. So on a 68-degree Thursday in March, he is getting fresh air by sitting in front of an open window in his apartment on 104th street in Manhattan while we talk on the phone. He has not been convicted of a crime. He's only been accused of a misdemeanor, and he's still awaiting trial. But, as of March 17, 2021, he has been locked up in his apartment for 589 days because, he says, he took on a massive multinational oil firm and won.
Donziger is a human rights lawyer who, for more than 27 years, has represented the Indigenous peoples and rural farmers of Ecuador against Texaco—since acquired by Chevron—which was accused of dumping at least 16 billion gallons of toxic waste into the area of the Amazon rainforest in which they live. Cancer is now highly prevalent in the local population. Some have called it the "Amazon Chernobyl." They first filed suit in New York in 1993, but Texaco lobbied, successfully, to move the proceedings to Ecuador. In 2011, the team of Ecuadorian lawyers Donziger worked with won the case, and Chevron was ultimately ordered to pay $9.8 billion.
But for Donziger, that was nowhere near the end. Chevron, a $260 billion company, went to a New York federal court to sue him under a lesser-known civil—non-criminal—provision of the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. They later dropped their demands for financial damages because it would have necessitated a jury trial. That is something Donziger has been unable to get. Instead, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, a former corporate lawyer whose clients included tobacco companies, became Donziger's judge-and-jury in the RICO case. He heard from 31 witnesses, but based his ruling in significant part on the testimony of Albert Guerra, a former Ecuadorian judge whom Chevron relocated to the U.S. at an overall cost of $2 million. Guerra alleged there was a bribe involved in the Ecuadorian court's judgement against Chevron. He has since retracted some of his testimony, admitting it was false.