The United Nations human rights body said Thursday that a former environmental lawyer’s house arrest on contempt charges was illegal and called on the U.S. to release him.
Steven Donziger in the early 1990s sued Texaco on behalf of a group of Ecuadorean farmers and indigenous people, alleging major environmental harms by the energy company. An Ecuadorean court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2011 and ordered Chevron, which had since acquired the company, to pay $9.5 billion.
In a countersuit in the U.S., Chevron accused Donziger of bribery and witness-tampering. Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled in Chevron’s favor, and Donziger incurred the contempt charges during the appeals process.
When federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York declined to prosecute Donziger on these contempt charges, Kaplan took the unusual step of appointing private attorneys instead.
Rita Glavin, one of the attorneys, had previously worked for a firm that Chevron retained. A U.S. district judge found Donziger, who has been under house arrest for nearly two years, guilty of the contempt charges in July.
In its ruling, the U.N.’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WAGA) called Donziger’s detention “arbitrary,” noting that the maximum penalty for Donziger’s charges is six months.
This, they wrote, “means Mr. Donziger, having been under house arrest since 6 August 2019, has already served the maximum possible penalty some four times over. In this regard the Working Group recalls that the Human Rights Committee has argued that ‘[I]f the length of time that the defendant has been detained reaches the length of the longest sentence that could be imposed for the crimes charged, the defendant should be released.”
The working group’s five international jurists said they were “appalled” by the case and said “the charges against and detention of Mr. Donziger appears to be retaliation for his work as a legal representative of indigenous communities, as he refused to disclose confidential correspondence with his clients in a very high profile case against multi-national business enterprise.”
Donziger’s legal team said in a statement that they will file the jurists' finding with Judge Loretta Preska, the judge who found Donziger guilty in July.
“This is an extremely significant and courageous decision by five international jurists who confirm what we have been saying for over two years: Steven Donziger has been subject to an illegal detention orchestrated by Chevron and two ideologically-driven trial judges who are retaliating against him for winning a major pollution judgement in Ecuador against a powerful U.S. corporation,” attorney Martin Garbus said in a statement.