Former environmental lawyer Steven Donziger sentenced to six months on contempt charges

A federal judge on Friday sentenced former environmental lawyer Steven Donziger to six months in prison after finding him guilty on contempt charges in July.

Donziger in the 1990s sued Texaco on behalf of Ecuadorian farmers and Indigenous people, securing an $8.5 billion judgment in 2011. The same year, Chevron, which had since acquired the company, countersued and accused Donziger of bribery and evidence tampering.

A federal judge found in Chevron’s favor, overturning the award and later charging Donziger with contempt. Donziger, who has been under house arrest for two years, was disbarred in 2018. Judge Lewis Kaplan took the unusual step of appointing private attorneys as prosecutors in the case after federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York declined to take it. One of the attorneys appointed previously worked for a firm Chevron has retained.

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In passing the sentence Friday, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska accused Donziger of an “astonishing lack of respect for the law” and “spen[ding] the last seven years thumbing his nose at the judicial system,” according to Bloomberg.

The sentence comes the day after the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention condemned Donziger’s house arrest and called for his immediate release, noting that he has already been detained longer than the maximum sentence for the charges.

“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 group added.

“As I face sentencing on Day 787 of house arrest, never forget what this case is really about,” Donziger tweeted Friday morning. “Chevron caused a mass industrial poisoning in the Amazon that crushed the lives of Indigenous peoples. Six courts and 28 appellate judges found the company guilty. Fight on.”

“I think it was outrageous and totally predictable,” Martin Garbus, one of Donziger’s attorneys, told The Hill, “and I’m very sad about it.”

Updated Oct. 1, 3:28 p.m.