55 Nobel Laureates Demand End to Judicial Attacks on U.S. Human Rights Lawyer Steven Donziger

Nobel winners from around the world demand Donziger be released from house arrest as he suffers persecution after winning pollution judgment against Chevron

New York, NY — Fifty-five Nobel Laureates—including 10 recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize— are calling for the protection of U.S. human rights attorney Steven Donziger as he enters his 16th month of house arrest without trial after winning a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron for its pollution of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

The statement of the Nobels is here. The list of signatories is here.

Chevron has refused to pay the judgment and instead has retained dozens of law firms around the world to target Donziger and the Indigenous leaders who in 2011 held the company accountable. Twenty-nine appellate judges, including the highest courts of Ecuador and Canada, have affirmed the judgment against Chevron.

“As Nobel Laureates, we have a deep and abiding interest in peace and justice, in upholding our international system for the protection of human rights, and in protecting the environment,” the letter reads. “It clearly is a violation of Mr. Donziger’s rights and those of the affected communities in Ecuador for a U.S. corporation to wrest the power from government to prosecute the lawyer who helped to hold it accountable for human rights abuses, abetted by judges with their own conflicts of interest.”

The Nobel Laureates are calling on U.S. judicial authorities to immediately:

  • Release Donziger from home detention;

  • Dismiss the charges against him;

  • Cease all judicial harassment of Donziger;

  • Ensure that any further legal actions involving Donziger are assigned to a neutral and unbiased judge.

“Steven Donziger is one of the few people to have stood up on behalf of thousands of Indigenous peoples and rural farmers in Ecuador’s Amazon suffering from cancers and other health impacts caused by oil pollution,” said Jody Williams, an organizer of the Nobel letter and the 1997 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. “It is time to end the injustice again Steven Donziger and, most importantly, against 30,000 indigenous peoples who no longer have their lawyer to represent them.”

As the judgment in Ecuador was about to issue, Chevron launched an explicit campaign to “demonize Donziger” which has now reached deep into the American judicial system. Donziger has been held for 15 months under house arrest in Manhattan in a criminal contempt case where the maximum punishment, if he were to be convicted, is six months and the longest sentence ever imposed on a lawyer is 90 days of home confinement.

Donziger’s “crime” amounts to refusing an unprecedented and likely illegal order from a pro-business judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, to turn over his computer and cell phone, full of attorney-client protected materials, to the oil company. Donziger’s appeal of that civil order is still pending.

Donziger is thought to be the first lawyer in American history charged by a judge with criminal contempt while his challenge to the underlying civil order was pending appeal. The federal prosecutor in New York rejected Kaplan’s charges and declined to take the case. Kaplan then took the extraordinarily rare step of appointing a private law firm with financial ties to Chevron (see here) to prosecute Donziger.

The criminal contempt charge that led to Donziger’s house arrest is riddled with conflicts and is a form of corporate retaliation after the lawyer helped his Indigenous clients win the judgment against Chevron and then refused to give up in trying to enforce it. His prosecution is being orchestrated by Chevron, aided by lawyers in a court where the presiding judge has ties to Chevron, said Williams.

In this particular case, Judge Loretta Preska is a member of the pro-corporate Federalist Society, of which Chevron is a major donor. Prosecutor Rita Glavin's law firm, Seward & Kissel, has Chevron as a client, while Kaplan's financial disclosure forms indicate he has investments in mutual funds that own Chevron stock.

More than 200 lawyers and 37 bar associations around the world recently filed a detailed ethics complaint against Judge Kaplan outlining years of alleged misconduct in his targeting of Donziger.