ON OCTOBER 1, 2021, the sun rose in the east and Steven Donziger was sentenced to prison. Both events were equally predictable, but only the latter was a consequence of the systematic corruption of what is deceptively called the American justice system.
Donziger, a human rights lawyer who has waged a three-decade battle against corporate predators on behalf of indigenous peoples of the Ecuadorian rainforest, was given the maximum sentence of six months for a misdemeanor charge of “criminal contempt of court.” He had already been confined under house arrest for more than two years on that lowest-level misdemeanor charge, on which no previous defendant had ever been held for more than ninety days. Furthermore, the vindictive judge, Loretta A. Preska, refused to allow Donziger bail, which would release him from house arrest, while his lawyers appeal the sentence.
During the sentencing, Judge Preska declared: “It seems that only the proverbial two-by-four between the eyes will instill in him any respect for the law.” Nothing, however, could demolish public respect for American law more effectively than the affront to human decency her maltreatment of Steven Donziger demonstrates.
Judge Preska, a stalking horse for the Federalist Society, perfectly exemplifies the corporate takeover of the American legal system. While public attention has been focused on the stacking of the U.S. Supreme Court with rightwing judges, the Federalist Society has been diligently at work infiltrating the courts at all levels of the American judicial system with judges of Preska’s ilk.
In the 1990s, Donziger sued the fossil fuels giant Texaco on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorian villagers for polluting their lands and destroying their health. In 2013, he and his legal team won an unprecedented $9.5 billion judgment against the corporation (which in the meantime had been acquired by Chevron). Chevron never paid a penny of the award and retaliated by countersuing Donziger for “bribery” and “evidence tampering.”
It would not be mere wordplay to describe the prosecution of Donziger as persecution. He calls the extraordinary judicial assault against him “a plan concocted by Chevron to dismantle my life. They want to do this to avoid paying up and to turn me into a weapon of intimidation against the whole legal profession.” His trial, he accurately points out, was being conducted “by a Chevron-connected judge and prosecuted by a Chevron-connected lawyer” (The Guardian, March 28, 2021). After the sentencing Donziger tweeted, “One purpose of a show trial is to display the raw power of the state to demoralize the citizenry. Never let it happen.”
Just before the sentencing hearing, the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned Donziger’s court-ordered home confinement of more than two years as a violation of international human rights law and called for his immediate release. Amnesty International demanded that American officials “promptly implement the decision by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calling for the immediate release of Steven Donziger.”
At the sentencing hearing, Donziger reaffirmed his innocence. “I’ve been fighting through the law to help the people of Ecuador for almost 30 years,” he stated. “For that reason, I cannot today express remorse for actions that I maintain are ethical and legal and that I am appealing.”
“Never forget what this case is really about,” Donziger tweeted on the morning of the sentencing. “Chevron caused a mass industrial poisoning in the Amazon that crushed the lives of Indigenous peoples. Six courts and 28 appellate judges found the company guilty. Fight on.”