Steven Donziger, Lawyer Behind $9.5B Chevron Settlement, Says His Jailing 'Will Backfire'

Steven Donziger, an environmental lawyer who won a $9.5 billion settlement against Chevron over oil pollution in Amazon rainforest Indigenous lands, has said his imprisonment will "backfire."

Donziger was sentenced to six months in prison earlier this month after being found guilty of criminal contempt of court in July for withholding evidence in his long-running battle with the energy giant. He was disbarred over the conviction.

On Wednesday afternoon, he turned himself in to a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, to begin serving the sentence after over 800 days on house arrest.

In a tweet, Donziger said his imprisonment is intended to intimidate other lawyers and activists. "It will backfire," he added.

Donziger expanded on that charge during an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!

He accused "allies of the fossil fuel industry" of "trying to use me as a weapon to intimidate activists and lawyers who do this work...defending the planet," he said.

"What's at stake, really, I mean, not only my freedom, what's at stake is the ability to advocate for human rights in our society."

He added: "They don't want people speaking out. They don't want successful litigation to hold them to account for their pollution in ways that will help save the planet. And I think, ultimately, that's what this is about."

When contacted by Newsweek, Chevron said: "We have no comment regarding Mr. Donziger."

Donziger sued Texaco in 1993 on behalf of Indigenous people from Ecuador's Amazon region over pollution and health impacts from oil production. Chevron became the defendant when it acquired Texaco in 2001.

Chevron contended that Donziger fabricated facts and argued that Ecuador's state-run oil company, Petroecuador, was primarily responsible for the damage and that it was released from liability after a $40 million cleanup.

An Ecuadorian court ordered Chevron to pay $9.5 billion. But the judgment was later invalidated by U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who ruled that it was obtained through fraud, bribery, witness tampering and other misconduct in 2014.

In 2019, Kaplan, a former corporate lawyer, tried to charge Donziger with contempt of court based on his refusals in 2014 to turn over documents and electronic devices that the court sought, according to The New York Times.

Donziger was disbarred last year after being found guilty in July of criminal contempt of court for withholding the evidence in the legal fight with Chevron, which claims that he fabricated evidence in the 1990s to win a lawsuit he filed against the energy giant on behalf of Indigenous people in Ecuador.

Steven Donziger arrives for a court appearance
Steven Donziger arrives for a court appearance at Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse in Manhattan on May 10, 2021 in New York City. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

When the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York declined to prosecute the case, Kaplan appointed a private law firm linked to Chevron, Seward & Kissel, to prosecute Donziger, his lawyer Ronald L. Kuby told The Times.

Donziger described that aspect as "disturbing" in his interview with Goodman.

"The judge never disclosed that the law firm had Chevron as a client," he said. "So, essentially, I'm being prosecuted by a Chevron law firm, a partner in a Chevron law firm, a private law firm, who deprived me of my liberty."

The #FreeDonziger team is happy to report that Steven was admitted today to the federal prison in Danbury (CT) after a decision by the Bureau of Prisons.

Today is Day One of the countdown to release. House arrest is over and the ankle bracelet has been removed. Onward.

— Steven Donziger (@SDonziger) October 27, 2021

And he called for the Department of Justice to take over the case. "They could do what they want with it," Donziger said. "If they want to prosecute me, prosecute me, but I need to be prosecuted by a neutral prosecutor, not by Chevron."

He added: "No matter what happens to me, and I hope I'll be okay, I hope I'll get through this. I expect to get through this, the communities in Ecuador suffering tremendously and they need help."

Kuby has been contacted for comment.