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Human rights experts band together to monitor Chevron foe's criminal trial

Human rights experts band together to monitor Chevron foe's criminal trial
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A group of legal experts on Monday announced the formation of a committee to monitor the criminal contempt trial against an environmental lawyer in New York who has waged a decades-long battle against the oil giant Chevron, citing irregularities in the court case.

Steven Donziger helped win a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron in Ecuador in 2011 over toxic environmental damage. Since then, he has lost a fraud case the company brought against him in the U.S., has been facing contempt charges and has been disbarred in New York — all stemming from allegations that he engaged in bribery and fraud in order to win the judgment in Ecuador.

Ahead of Donziger's contempt trial next month, seven legal scholars and advocates have formed a trial monitoring committee out of concern with what they see as rampant misconduct plaguing the case. Such committees, which don't carry any legal authority in court, are rare for U.S. cases and are usually formed by human rights advocates to monitor high-profile cases against dissidents and activists in countries with justice systems that lack independence.

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Scott Wilson Badenoch Jr., an environmental and human rights lawyer, organized the committee after studying the court record and being shocked by Donziger's ordeal, he told The Hill.

"The depths of what seems to be misconduct in this case were eerily similar to the types of misconduct we've seen in other countries that have a lesser commitment to and tradition of just rule of law," said Badenoch, who chairs an American Bar Association committee on environmental justice.

"The fact that we need to do this is frankly appalling, and we've got a lot of work to do in the rest of the world," he added. "I don't want to have to spend my time monitoring an American case to protect a human rights defender here in America. That's seriously the last thing I want to do, but here we are."

Among those on the seven-member committee are Nadine Strossen, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union; Stephen Rapp, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes during the Obama administration; and Christopher "Kip" Hale, a distinguished international criminal justice expert.

Legal observers have raised numerous concerns about the proceedings around Donziger's case, which has attracted the attention of Nobel laureates, celebrities and foreign leaders.

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District Judge Lewis Kaplan, a Clinton appointee, ruled in 2014 that Donziger had committed bribery and fraud in securing the court win in Ecuador. When Donziger refused Kaplan's order to hand over his cellphone and computer, citing attorney-client privilege, the judge charged him with criminal contempt.

In contempt cases, it is usually up to the government to handle prosecution, but the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan declined the case.

Kaplan took the rare step of appointing a private law firm to prosecute the misdemeanor criminal charge. Donziger's legal team is seeking to disqualify the firm in a pretrial appeal, citing the fact that it represented Chevron as recently as 2018.

Critics have noted that Kaplan denied the environmental attorney a jury trial and that Ecuadorian Judge Alberto Guerra, Chevron's star witness, later admitted to lying on the stand.

“The campaign of judicial and corporate harassment being waged against Steven Donziger is chilling in scope and intensity,” Jeanne Mirer, president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers and a member of the monitoring committee, said in a statement.

“We formed this committee out of serious, well-substantiated concern that Steven Donziger’s due process rights are being continually violated in the very courts that should be upholding them. We want all parties involved to know that from this moment forward, we will be watching,” Mirer added.

Sean Comey, a spokesperson for Chevron, told The Hill, "The judgment against Chevron Corporation in Ecuador was the product of fraud, bribery and corruption. Steven Donziger is a proven liar and an adjudicated racketeer. He committed criminal acts in the U.S. and abroad in pursuit of his extortion scheme in the Ecuadorian courts. Donziger’s continuing lawlessness is now a matter for prosecutors and the U.S. courts to decide. Chevron is not involved in Donziger’s criminal prosecution."

Rita Glavin, the court-appointed prosecutor in Donziger's upcoming trial, did not immediately respond when asked for comment.

Donziger, who has been confined to house arrest for more than a year, said he was heartened that his trial would be subject to the added scrutiny. He denies any wrongdoing in Ecuador and has criticized Kaplan's handling of his case.

"I'm extremely pleased to see that this group of distinguished lawyers whose credibility cannot be questioned in the least would care enough to come in and examine this in a way that I hope will protect my constitutional rights as an American citizen," Donziger told The Hill in a phone interview.

"On the other hand, it marks a sad moment that this now has to happen for this kind of case in our country," he added.

Donziger's trial is slated to begin Sept. 9.