Kennedy Is Right: Environmental Lawyer Steven Donziger Must Be Pardoned

Kennedy Is Right: Environmental Lawyer Steven Donziger Must Be Pardoned
American Values 2024 | June 18, 2024

By Gary Wockner, Special to The Kennedy Beacon

Over the last decade, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to some remote places on the planet where brave environmental advocates are working to protect rivers, forests, and Indigenous lands. Although I’ve written and published about most of those experiences, I always leave out certain details in my writing that might bring danger or risk to the local advocates working on the ground.

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The truth is that in much of the world, being an environmental protector is a dangerous occupation. We often believe that the danger is mostly in so-called Third World countries with unstable governments, where private police forces support corporations intent on illegal resource extraction. While that is true, the danger can also exist because the government itself is a threat to local environmental defenders. In addition, we are seeing increasing risks in Global North countries as authoritarian leaders crack down on people who work to protect the environment.

Living in the United States, I feel a strong sense of freedom to speak my mind and defend the environment in any way legally possible, because our government ensures the protection of free speech and advocacy. Further, I’ve felt a sense of responsibility to my colleagues in more dangerous countries – to support their work, speak out for them, and be the strongest advocate possible here in the US, where I’m protected by our laws and Constitution.

All of that seemed to change in 2021 when an American attorney, Steven Donziger, was detained and jailed here, by order of a US federal court, due to the outcome of a lawsuit brought against him by the Chevron Corporation. A decade earlier, Donziger, advocating on behalf of local Indigenous tribes, had famously obtained a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron in an Ecuadorian court due to its alleged oil-spill pollution of rainforests, rivers, and Indigenous peoples’ lands. Chevron then turned the tables and sued Donziger in the US, claiming that the information he had presented to the Ecuadorian court was fraudulent and involved “racketeering.”

Donziger subsequently spent 45 days in prison and nearly three years under house arrest in his New York City apartment.

The details of this case – and the plight of Donziger – are long, complex, and contested. But there are two facts that I believe are the most important and that everyone agrees on.

First, the core pretext for Donziger’s detainment and jailing was that he had refused to turn over sources of information to Chevron that could have proved, or disproved, the racketeering charge. For that refusal, Donziger was held in “contempt of court.” Donziger, in his defense, claims that attorney-client privilege legally protects those sources of information.

The US Department of Justice seemed to agree with that defense, refusing to prosecute Donziger for contempt of court, but the federal judge in the case took the unheard-of step of appointing an independent prosecutor to bring the charges against Donziger. Finally, the case was appealed to the US Supreme Court, and although a majority of the court declined to hear it – which caused Donziger’s conviction to stand – two conservative justices slammed the circumstances of the conviction.

Second, the oil-spill pollution in Ecuador and the harms it caused to people and to the environment are not disputed. What is disputed is who caused the pollution – Chevron blames Ecuador’s government-owned oil company, Petroecuador, while Donziger (and the Ecuadorian courts) blamed Chevron. As such, the travesty of environmental harm and extensive negative impacts on the Indigenous people of Ecuador remain unaddressed, despite the legal wrangling.

The case against Donziger has recently taken a new twist: he and many of his colleagues and allies in the US have called on President Biden to officially pardon him for his alleged crime as well as reinstate his right to practice law. In a strongly worded press release last week, 50 environmental and human rights organizations, including Amazon Watch and Amnesty International, have called on Biden to pardon Donziger. As the press release states:

Donziger’s prosecution and detention has been condemned by respected jurists, including the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD). The WGAD found Mr. Donziger’s detention to be illegal and “arbitrary” under international law. Three U.S. federal judges, including two Supreme Court justices, have condemned the prosecution as unconstitutional.

Also last week, I was delighted to see presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tweet his support for Donziger and insist that Biden pardon him. Further, Kennedy made clear that if he is elected president, one of his first actions will be to grant that pardon.

Kennedy Calls On Biden to Pardon Donziger

Kennedy spent much of his career as a protector of the environment and human rights – including fighting against resource extraction and large dams in Latin America. Supporting Donziger is in his DNA. Kennedy stated in a video posted on X:

Corporate capture hasn’t just infiltrated our governmental agencies – it’s crept into our legal system, too…. Chevron used its power to have Steven [Donziger] imprisoned and put under house arrest for almost three years. It was retaliation, pure and simple, and the nation’s first corporate prosecution of an attorney. It’s harrowing not only for Steven and his clients, but for everyone who believes in free speech and freedom from corporate control. This is how huge corporations and our country’s most powerful industries send a warning to any environmentalist or human rights attorney who may challenge them. When I’m president, I will give Steven Donziger the full presidential pardon he deserves. But Steve shouldn’t have to wait for justice. Help me pressure President Biden – who claims to be pro-environment – to pardon Steve now.

President Biden has yet to respond to either Kennedy or the environmental groups.

I’ve been to Ecuador. As a dam fighter and a river protector, I’ve witnessed the harm that hydroelectric dams cause to the environment of Ecuador, and I’ve spoken and written about it. I’ve been careful not to name names of activists in Ecuador, and also careful not to point out the names of the international hydroelectric companies that are perpetrating what I see as environmental and human-rights crimes. I’m well aware that environmental activists – including river protectors – have faced threats, legal actions, and worse for attempting to protect the rivers of Ecuador.

Keeping my sources confidential has been central to my river-protection work and advocacy across the planet, and I will continue striving to protect these courageous people.

But my position as a US citizen gives me a right – and a responsibility – to speak out to protect the environment when and where others cannot. That a multinational corporation worth hundreds of billions of dollars has a “right” to bring charges against, and seek extensive prosecution of, a US citizen for protecting the environment and human rights disgraces democracy and moral and legal justice. Steven Donziger must be pardoned.

Gary Wockner is an environmental activist based in Colorado.

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