Steven Donziger, the US indigenous rights campaigner and lawyer who spent decades battling the energy firm Chevron over pollution in the Ecuadorian rainforest, was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment on Friday for criminal contempt charges arising from a lawsuit brought by the oil giant.
Donziger, who was disbarred from practicing law in New York last year, was found guilty in May of defying court orders, including by failing to turn over his computer and other electronic devices.
Friday’s sentence, handed down by federal judge Loretta Preska in Manhattan, came a day after he asked the court to consider an opinion by independent United Nations experts that found his court-ordered home confinement of more than two years was a violation of international human rights law.
The UN experts’ opinion said the US breached international law by putting Donziger under house arrest for about four times the maximum sentence of six months that he has now received in his contempt case.
The experts, appointed by the Geneva-based UN human rights council, said that “the appropriate remedy” would be to “accord [Donziger] an enforceable right to compensation”.
Amnesty International also petitioned US authorities “to promptly implement the decision by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calling for the immediate release of Steven Donziger”.
While Preska was not bound to consider the UN experts’ testimony that Donziger had been unlawfully confined, she imposed an unexpectedly tough sentence. “It seems that only the proverbial two-by-four between the eyes will instill in him any respect for the law,” she said from the bench.
Donziger was charged in August 2019 with criminal contempt and placed under home detention to address concerns of flight risk. Five months ago, the judge found him guilty for “repeatedly and willfully” defying court orders.
The criminal case turns on a ruling from an earlier, 2014 civil case in which a Manhattan judge barred US enforcement of a $9.5bn judgment against Chevron Corp that Donziger had won in the Ecuadorian courts in 2011.
Chevron has never paid up, claiming “shocking levels of misconduct” and fraud by Donziger and the Ecuadorian judiciary. In the US, a judge agreed and said the Ecuadorian decision had been secured through bribery, fraud and extortion.
Donziger was ordered to turn over his computer, phones and other electronic devices. That later escalated into a criminal case when he failed to do so.
In an interview with the Guardian in March, Donziger described how his crusade against Chevron on behalf of indigenous people affected by oil pollution in the Amazon rainforest had turned and that he had become the victim of a “planned targeting by a corporation to destroy my life”.
Friday’s decision is likely to raise condemnation of Donziger’s treatment by US authorities. In March, he claimed he was being tried “by a Chevron-connected judge and prosecuted by a Chevron-connected lawyer? It’s just wrong,” Donziger said.
“This is all part of 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.”