UNITED STATES: Lawyer Steven Donziger under house arrest since August 2019
Steven Donziger is an American lawyer; he was a member of the team that won a landmark lawsuit in Ecuador against Chevron for dumping tons of toxic waste in the country between 1964 and 1992 (widespread soil and water pollution, cancer epidemics in indigenous communities, etc.). The company was condemned to pay $9.5 billion to the victim communities on the basis of 105 expert reports; but since then, the battle is being fought (in several countries, notably the USA and Canada) over the enforcement of this judgment.
In addition, Chevron has since embarked on a major retaliation against the original plaintiffs and their lawyers. It has employed at least 2,000 legal professionals and investigators to block the execution of the judgment.
Steven Donziger, meanwhile, was prosecuted in US courts for fraud and corruption in the Ecuadorian trial. In 2014, Judge Kaplan ruled in Chevron’s favour and sentenced S. Donziger finding that the Ecuadorian judgment (although upheld by the Ecuadorian Supreme Court) was tainted by fraud and corruption.
Chevron has adopted a strategy of “demonizing” the lawyer and in particular obtained in 2018 the revocation of his lawyer’s license in several American states. In September 2018, the lawyer filed a petition (request) with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
As for Judge Kaplan, he has a solid reputation of being in favour of Chevron (see report) a company in which he is said to have a financial interest; he has even been accused of having approved a transfer of funds to a judicial official in order to guide a decision in favour of the company, and this in the context of a retaliation lawsuit brought by Chevron against Ecuadorian villagers defended by Steven Donziger.
Since then, it has been shown that the 2014 judgment was completely fraudulent: the prosecution’s central witness (a former Ecuadorian judge) himself confessed under oath to having been bought by Chevron.
However, in early 2019, Judge Kaplan ordered Donziger to hand over his computer and mobile phone to Chevron, which the lawyer refused. He was then charged with civil contempt on 23 May; on 11 June, Judge Kaplan requested and obtained the confiscation of the lawyer’s passport.
In August 2019, Judge Kaplan drafted criminal contempt charges, and although the public prosecutors explicitly refused to act on this basis, he assigned three private prosecutors to prosecute the case. Steven Donziger was placed under house arrest with an electronic bracelet on the grounds that he was a flight risk, which was confirmed in mid-November by a new decision by one of the lawyers.
A statement was published on 14 November, the 100th day of Steven Donziger’s house arrest, by numerous human rights and environmental organizations.
The OIAD considers that the use of measures, such as the confiscation of his passport, the use of an electronic bracelet or the revocation of his licence, represent attempts to intimidate the lawyer Steven Donziger.
These measures violate Principle No. 16 of the Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which provides that lawyers “shall not be subject to, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or others sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics“.
The OIAD deplores the fact that lawyer Steven Donziger does not have access to ” be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal” as guaranteed by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Indeed, it seems inappropriate for Judge Kaplan to preside over this case when his comments towards the lawyer clearly demonstrate a lack of impartiality.
The OIAD condemns these measures, which amount to acts of reprisals against the lawyer and are likely to discourage lawyers who would like to engage in the defense of such cases.