Steven Donziger released after nearly 1000 days of house arrest


Steven Donziger, on his 800th day of house arrest. (Courtesy of Steven Donziger’s Instagram)

Former human rights lawyer Steven Donziger was released on April 25 after serving a combined 993 days in home detention.

Donziger famously won a landmark case against the Chevron oil corporation in 2011 for environmental damages to Ecuadorian indigenous land, which left inhabitants with poisoned water and high rates of birth defects and cancer. Chevron was ordered by the Ecuadorian court to pay $9.5 billion in damages.

Chevron launched a legal attack against Donziger after the ruling, claiming that the case was won fraudulently. He was placed on house arrest in August 2019 while awaiting trial on charges of criminal contempt of court and remained there until his release last week. He even served a 45-day jail sentence late in 2021 before returning to home confinement.

In September, the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights ruled that Donziger’s home detention was illegal under international law.

“There’s never been a lawyer ever forced to go to jail for the criminal offense I’ve been convicted of,” Donziger told The DePaulia in October of 2021.

For environmentalists around the world, Donziger’s unprecedented punishment was an example of corporate oil using corruption in the justice system to silence activists.

“This case has been a really important one for our organization for so long,” said Paul Paz y Miño, the associate director of Amazon Watch. The organization is aimed at protecting the rainforest and advancing the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin.

Paz y Miño and Amazon Watch have been fighting alongside Donziger since Chevron’s legal retaliation began.

“We have been targeted by Chevron as, in their words, ‘co-conspirators’ of Donziger and the Ecuadorians in their alleged fraud,” Paz y Miño told The DePaulia.

An ally of Donziger and others fighting on behalf of justice in the Amazon, Paz y Miño was pleased to hear that Donziger had finally been released. However, Donziger’s legal battle with Chevron is far from over.

“His bank account is still frozen,” Paz y Miño said. “He still has to deal with [Judge Lewis] Kaplan’s orders and Chevron trying to extort over $30 million for legal fees. Those are still battles he still has to fight. It’s only the criminal contempt situation that’s finally over.”

During his time under house arrest, Donziger went on a virtual media tour, sharing his story with online media outlets and advocating against environmental destruction and corruption in the justice system. In the process, Donziger accumulated nearly 200,000 followers on Twitter and became a figurehead for environmental and judicial activism around the world.

Paz y Miño says that Donziger’s popularity growth during this time highlights the flaws of Chevron’s legal strategy.

“Absolutely, it backfired,” Paz y Miño said of Chevron pursuing Donziger in court. “Because in 2017, I was basically the only person talking to Steven … And now, people realize that this was an outrageous attempt to silence somebody that has been effective.”

“[Chevron’s] playbook has essentially been exposed,” Paz y Miño continued. “The story is not just what they did in Ecuador, which is bad enough. But it’s the anatomy of a corporate hit job and how they fight back against those who are successful at holding them to account.”

Both Chevron and the private law firm that prosecuted Donziger have faced public backlash over their role in his imprisonment.

Now released, Donziger is using the momentum he built as an activist to unite other causes against corruption. He hosted a block party on his release date in Manhattan, where he was joined by Amazon Labor Union President Christian Smalls.

Rabyaah Althaibani, a prominent New York activist, was also among those in attendance.

“The atmosphere was electrifying,” Althaibani told The DePaulia. “Everyone was feeling hopeful for the first time, and really happy that he’s finally free.”

Fellow attendee Brian McHale reiterated that the event didn’t just shed light on Donziger’s case with Chevron.

“It wasn’t just about [Donziger],” McHale said. “He brought [Smalls], who gave a great speech. He brought some other community leaders that are doing some really awesome things. It was really about building community around these issues that we all find important.”

Donziger’s story is far from over. He’s established a community of those hoping to hold companies like Chevron accountable.

Meanwhile, Chevron is continuing to deny any corruption or wrongdoing on their side of the legal battle.

“The Ecuador judgment against Chevron has repeatedly been found to be fraudulent,” wrote James Craig, communications advisor for Chevron in a statement to The DePaulia. “Steven Donziger is an adjudicated racketeer and fraudster who was disbarred for his illegal and unethical acts in the Ecuador case and held in civil and criminal contempt for flouting lawful court orders.”

Donziger didn’t respond in time for comment.