Lawyer Steven Donziger found guilty of withholding evidence in Chevron case

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Steven Donziger, the lawyer who has spearheaded a lengthy fight against Chevron over pollution in the Amazon rainforest, has been found guilty of criminal contempt by a US federal judge in the latest twist in his decades-long legal battle with the oil company.

On Monday, US district judge Loretta Preska ruled that Donziger was guilty of six contempt charges brought against him for refusing to hand over evidence in a complex legal wrangle that has pitted the lawyer directly against Chevron.

Related: The lawyer who took on Chevron – and now marks his 600th day under house arrest

In a 245-page judgment, Preska said that Donziger had “repeatedly and willfully” defied court orders and that “at stake here is the fundamental principle that a party to a legal action must abide by court orders or risk criminal sanctions”. Preska added that “it’s time to pay the piper”, with Donziger now facing six months in jail. The lawyer called the ruling a “sad day for the rule of law, for our democracy, and for our planet” and that he will appeal.

Donziger has already spent nearly two years confined to his New York City apartment by court order, a monitoring bracelet that he calls “the black claw” fitted to his ankle at all times, and his detention has gained him the support of environmental activists and celebrities such as Alec Baldwin and the Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters, who insist he has been persecuted.

“I expected this and I think we’ve got a very strong chance on appeal, I expect to be vindicated,” Donziger told the Guardian after the verdict. “The whole thing was rigged, it was a sham. I’m frankly embarrassed for my country that this has happened.”

The sprawling legal saga stems from a 2011 judgment in Ecuador where Chevron was ordered to pay $9.5bn in damages to people, represented by Donziger, blighted by decades of polluted air and water allegedly caused by the company’s oil drilling operations. Chevron has never paid this, claiming “shocking levels of misconduct” by Donziger and the Ecuadorian judiciary.

Chevron has accused Donziger of bribing the judge in Ecuador and ghostwriting the final verdict, an accusation he strenuously denies. However in 2016 a US judge, Lewis Kaplan, found that Donziger was involved in racketeering activity and granted Chevron seizure of the lawyer’s laptop and phone. When Donziger appealed this, he was hit with the contempt charges and placed under house arrest.

In an unusual move, a private law firm that has previously done work for Chevron was hired to prosecute Donziger after federal government prosecutors declined to take up the case.

“I wasn’t prosecuted in a fair process, I didn’t have a jury and I think Chevron is behind all of this,” Donziger said.

Preska’s judgment explicitly denies the lawyer has been the victim of a conspiracy, however. “Contrary to Mr Donziger’s assertion that his conviction was ‘pre-ordained’, the court finds him guilty on each count for one reason and one reason only: Mr Donziger did that with which he is charged. Period,” she wrote.

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