Posts Tagged ‘House arrest’

Steven Donziger: human rights defender now victim of judicial harassment

August 10, 2020

Steven Donziger, gestures during a press conference on March 19, 2014 in Quito, Ecuador.Rodrigo Buendia/Getty

Last September, I travelled from Western Canada to New York City to see the human rights lawyer Steven Donziger. Donziger cannot travel. He cannot even stroll the hallway of his Upper West Side apartment building on 104th Street without special court permission. He remains under house arrest, wearing an ankle bracelet. Eight years ago, Donziger and a team of Ecuadorian lawyers, on behalf of Indigenous and farmer plaintiffs, won the largest human rights and environmental court judgment in history, a $9.5-billion US verdict against the Chevron Corporation for massive oil pollution in Ecuador’s Amazon basin.

Following the trial, Chevron removed its assets from Ecuador, left the country, and has refused to pay. The company now claims the Ecuador verdict was achieved fraudulently, and produced a witness, who told a US court that he possessed knowledge of a bribe. Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled in Chevron’s favour, halting collection of the pollution fine in the US and placing Donziger in electronic chains in his home.

The details in this case really matter, so here the story in full:

Crime and punishment

Donziger, born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1961, graduated from Harvard Law in 1991, and founded Project Due Process, offering legal services to Cuban refugees. In 1993, Ecuador’s Frente de Defensa de la Amazonía (FDA), representing 30,000 victims of Chevron’s pollution, heard about Donziger and asked him to help win compensation for their lost land, polluted water, and epidemics of cancer and birth defects in a region now known as the “Amazon Chernobyl.”

Donziger originally filed the claim in New York, but Chevron insisted the case be heard in Ecuador, where the trial began in 1993.

Evidence showed that between 1964 and 1992, Texaco (now Chevron) dumped 16 billion gallons of toxic wastewater into rivers and pits. Fifty-four judicial site inspections confirmed that the average Chevron waste pit in Ecuador contained 200 times the contamination allowed by US and world standards, including illegal levels of barium, cadmium, copper, mercury, lead, and other metals that can damage the immune and reproductive systems and cause cancer. According to Amazon Watch, by ignoring regulations, the company saved about $3 per barrel of oil, earning an extra $5 billion over 20 years.

In 2007, during the trial, Chevron stated that if the victims pursued the case, they faced a “lifetime of … litigation.” The plaintiffs persevered. Since the victims were dirt poor, Donziger and his team, with FDA support, devised an innovative solution to fund the case, offering investors a tiny portion of any eventual settlement.

In 2011, after an eight-year trial, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Two appeals courts and the nation’s Supreme Court, the Court of Cassation, confirmed the decision. Seventeen appellate judges ruled unanimously that Chevron was responsible for the contamination and owed Donziger’s clients $9.5 billion.

The lone witness

According to court documents, Chevron “refus(ed) to comply” with the judgment and began to make good on its threat for a “lifetime of litigation.” According to internal company memos, Chevron launched a retaliatory campaign to attack the victims, discredit Ecuador’s courts, and “demonize” Donziger.

Chevron hired one of the world’s most notorious law firms, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher—previously censured by England’s High Court of Justice for fabricating evidence. Judges in California, Montana, and New York have censured and fined Gibson Dunn for such misbehavior as witness tampering, obstruction, intimidation, and what one judge called “legal thuggery.”

Using US RICO statutes designed to prosecute organized crime syndicates, the firm filed a “racketeering” case against Donziger. Judge Kaplan at the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York—a former tobacco company lawyer widely viewed as being friendly to large corporations—agreed to hear the peculiar case. Kaplan claimed the Ecuador trial “was not a bona fide litigation” and insulted the victims, calling them “so-called plaintiffs.” Gibson Dunn lawyer Randy Mastro called the Ecuador courts “a sham.”

Prominent trial lawyer John Keker, representing Donziger, claimed the Kaplan trial was pure intimidation and called the proceedings a “Dickensian farce” driven by Kaplan’s “implacable hostility” toward Donziger.

On the eve of the trial, Chevron dropped its financial claims, allowing Kaplan to dismiss the jury and decide the outcome himself. Then Chevron unveiled their star witness—Alberto Guerra, a disgraced former Ecuadorian judge removed from the bench for accepting bribes. In a Chicago hotel room, Chevron and Gibson Dunn lawyers rehearsed Guerra for 53 days.

In Kaplan’s court, Guerra claimed that Donziger had approved a “bribe” to an Ecuadorian judge and had written the final court ruling for the judge, allegedly transferred on a computer thumb drive. No corroborating evidence was ever offered. Guerra later admitted lying about these facts, and a forensic investigation of the Ecuadorian judge’s computer proved that Guerra had lied.

The entire story now appears fabricated. Donziger’s lawyers have attempted to locate Guerra and depose him, but the star witness has not yet been found.

“Chevron’s case,” said Donziger’s lawyer Andrew Frisch, “rested on the testimony of a witness who was paid over $1 million.” Frisch stated that Kaplan’s rulings “have been contradicted in whole or in part by 17 appellate judges in Ecuador and 10 in Canada, including unanimous decisions of the highest courts in both countries.”

Nevertheless, without a jury, Kaplan accepted Guerra’s testimony and found that Donziger had committed fraud. Finally, Kaplan ordered Donziger to turn over his computer and cellphone to Chevron. Since this order violated attorney-client confidentiality, Donziger refused until the court of appeals could decide the issue.

Kaplan charged Donziger with “criminal contempt” for refusing his order. However, the order and the contempt charge were so outrageous that the N.Y. prosecutor’s office refused to accept the case. Kaplan defied the state authorities and appointed a private law firm, Seward & Kissel—with commercial ties to Chevron—to act as prosecutor, which, in turn, ordered Donziger be placed under “pretrial home detention.”

Legal thuggery

An unnamed New York Second Circuit judge—presumed by Donziger and his lawyers to be Kaplan—filed a complaint against Donziger with the bar grievance committee in New York, which then suspended Donziger’s law license without a hearing. However, bar referee and former federal prosecutor John Horan called for a hearing and recommended the return of Donziger’s law license. “The extent of his pursuit by Chevron is so extravagant, and at this point so unnecessary and punitive,” Horan wrote, “he should be allowed to resume the practice of law.” Donziger responded that, “Any neutral judicial officer who looks objectively at the record almost always finds against Chevron and Kaplan. The tide is turning and the hard evidence about the extreme injustice in Kaplan’s court will be exposed.”

This case appears to be about bullying. Chevron is one of the wealthiest corporations in the world. The plaintiffs are poor, Indigenous, and campesino people with scarce access to money or lawyers. “Donziger came to our rescue,” says FDA president Luis Yanza. How big can high-stakes corporate bullying get? Donziger’s lawyers estimate the oil giant has spent over $2 billion on 2,000 lawyers, public relations teams, and private investigators.

At the dinner party at Donziger’s, I met supporters from around the world, from Amazon Watch and Global Witness, journalists, lawyers, and human rights advocates. “This case is not just about Steven’s fate,” said Simon Taylor, director of Global Witness in London. “I believe the injustice to him is intended to intimidate the rest of us, to chill the work of other environmental and corporate accountability advocates.”

American human rights attorneys Martin Garbus and Charles Nesson formed a support committee for Donziger with dozens of civil society leaders, including: Clive Stafford-Smith, founder of the prisoner-rights group Reprieve in London; Atossa Soltani and Leila Salazar, the founder and executive director of Amazon Watch; Lynne Twist, co-founder of the Pachamama Alliance working in the Amazon; renowned author John Perkins; and famed musician Roger Waters.

The tide may be turning for Donziger and the victims in Ecuador. In June 2019, Amnesty International asked the US Department of Justice to conduct a criminal investigation into Chevron’s and Gibson Dunn’s conduct, witness bribery, and fraud in the Ecuador pollution litigation

This past February, Prof. Ellen Yaroshefsky, director of the Monroe H. Freedman Institute for the Study of Legal Ethics at Hofstra University in New York, wrote that the Kaplan and Seward & Kissel prosecution of Donziger is flawed with conflicts of interest, financial ties to Chevron Corporation, and judicial bias.

In April, 29 Nobel laureates signed a letter stating, “(We) support Steven Donziger and the Indigenous peoples and local communities in Ecuador in their decades-long work to achieve environmental justice over pollution caused by Chevron…. Chevron and a pro-corporate judicial ally, US District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, manufactured ‘contempt’ charges against Donziger. (Chevron’s) goal is to intimidate and disempower the victims of its pollution and a lawyer who has worked for decades on their behalf.”

A month later, more than 475 international lawyers, bar associations, and human rights advocates criticized Kaplan’s ruling for persecuting Donziger “based on false witness testimony provided by Chevron, personal animus, and… to protect Chevron from a valid foreign court judgment.” The letter, from the US National Lawyers Guild and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, urges an end to the pretrial house arrest of Donziger, noting “such arbitrary detention sets a dangerous precedent for human rights attorneys in the United States and around the world.”

On May 27, 2020, the Newground investment firm in Seattle, Wash., placed two proposals on Chevron’s 2020 proxy call, asking for governance reforms to bring its Ecuador issues to resolution, and prevent future human rights and pollution liabilities. The proposals were supported by actor Alec Baldwin, musician Roger Waters, and Nobel laureate Jody Williams.

On July 16, the European Parliament wrote to the US Congress asking the Congressional Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties to investigate Chevron’s treatment of Donziger, which the EU Parliament found “not consistent with what has traditionally been the strong support in the United States for the rule of law generally and for protection for human rights defenders in particular.”

Late at night, in the Donziger home, after the supporters had left, Donziger and his wife Laura sipped wine. “We’re not giving up,” Donziger said. “The only fraud in this case has been conducted by Chevron. Modern nations have comity relationships, formally respecting each other’s court decisions. We’re reviewing enforcement actions in Canada, Australia, and other jurisdictions. Chevron owes the money, and they can’t just run, hide, and fabricate stories to avoid paying. They’re persecuting me to try to change the public narrative, but they’re guilty. They committed the crime, they hurt people, they were proven responsible in a court of law that they chose, and they owe the money.”

…..As I write this, in mid-July, Donziger has been in home detention for 345 days, almost a year, longer than any lawyer in US history has ever served for a contempt charge.

How Did a Lawyer Who Took on Big Oil and Won End up Under House Arrest?

What a courageous woman! Vietnamese human rights defender pledges to fight on at home

March 1, 2018
Dissident Vietnamese blogger Pham Doan Trang is shown in an image provided by the website danlambao.
 Vietnamese blogger Pham Doan Trang is shown in an image provided by the website danlambao.com

A Vietnamese human rights defender and blogger – now under house arrest – says she will not travel outside the country to receive a human rights award in March, vowing instead to remain in Vietnam to work for change in the one-party communist state. Pham Doang Trang, author of a recently published book on political engagement that has angered Vietnamese authorities, wrote on Wednesday on her Facebook page that she will not attempt to go abroad to receive her prize, according to Radio Free Asia on 28 February 2018.

I haven’t gone abroad and don’t plan to, not even for a few days to receive the Homo Homini Prize in the Czech Republic on March 5,” Trang said. “I will never leave Vietnam until Vietnam has changed.” “When one is like a fish that has been born in a dirty and polluted pond, one can either find one’s way to a nicer and cleaner pond nearby or to the vast ocean, or one can try to change one’s own pond to make it beautiful, breathable, and worth living in,” Trang said. “I choose this second option”.

[Trang received the 2017 Homo Homini Award from People in Need, an international human rights organization based in the Czech Republic. See : http://trueheroesfilms.org/thedigest/awards/homo-homini-award]

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/11/18/overview-of-recent-campaigning-for-human-rights-defenders-in-vietnam/

https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/change-02282018145831.html

https://www.clovekvtisni.cz/en/what-we-do/human-rights-support/vietnam/the-homo-homini-prize-for-2017-will-be-awarded-to-a-persecuted-vietnamese-blogger-4888gp

Human rights defenders Sui Muqing and Huang Liqun in China released

January 7, 2016

On 6 and 7 January 2016, human rights lawyers Mr Sui Muqing and Mr Huang Liqun in China were released from police custody reports Front Line Defenders on 7 January.  The two human rights defenders were detained on 10 July 2015 in the midst of a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers [https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/the-remarkable-crackdown-on-lawyers-in-china-in-july-2015/] and placed under ‘residential surveillance at a designated location‘. Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law allows for the detention of suspects in state security, terrorism and serious bribery cases for up to six months in undisclosed locations, under the guise of ‘residential surveillance’. The authorities are not obliged to specify the place of detention or notify the suspect’s relatives or legal representative of the reasons for the residential surveillance in cases relating to the three charges, if doing so may “interfere with the investigation”. Neither of the human rights defenders were permitted access to lawyers during their six months’ detention. https://frontlinedefenders.org/node/29112

(Sui Muqing is a Guangzhou-based human rights lawyer who has represented a number of other human rights defenders, including Guo Feixiong, and has suffered harassment, intimidation and travel bans as a result of his work. Huang Liqun is a human rights lawyer with Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, a firm specifically targeted by the authorities in Beijing. Six other lawyers with the firm remain in detention).

Up to 20 other human rights defenders in the July crackdown are still in detention.

 

 

 

 

How the mighty fall in Uzbekistan: Gulnara Karimova asks human rights protection

August 22, 2014

Gulnara Karimova

Gulnara Karimova (pictured above), the glamorous daughter of Uzbekistan’s president, used to be one of the more powerful people in Central Asia. But now, in secret recordings obtained by the BBC, she says she and her teenaged daughter are being treated “worse than dogs” and need urgent medical help since she has fallen out with her dictator father President Islam Karimov. The BBC news correspondent Natalia Antelava on 21 August reports on this exceptional story.  Natalia Antelava reports that in March 2014, she received and authenticated a handwritten letter from Karimova, in which she said she and her daughter had been placed under house arrest and now the short audio recordings were smuggled out of Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan has a history of human rights violations and Karimova has fully played her role in this sorry state of affairs (see e.g. https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2011/07/04/daughter-of-uzbek-dictator-loses-defamation-case-in-paris/. Stroehlein of Human Rights Watch (which will publish next month a report on wrongfully imprisoned people in the country) is understandably cautious when it comes to Karimova’s recent concern for human rights in Uzbekistan, since it follows a decade-long period when the woman known as “Googoosha” wielded immense power in the country. “She almost certainly had top-level regime access to critical information regarding serious and systematic rights abuses in Uzbekistan, and she has had many opportunities to hand that information over to journalists and human rights groups,” he says . “She hasn’t.” 

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Chinese Human rights Defender Ilham Tohti placed under strict house arrest

March 29, 2013

On 21 March 2013, Uyghur human rights defender Ilham Tohti  was placed under strict house arrest at his home in Beijing. On 22 March, the human rights defender was due to travel to Hong Kong to attend an academic conference. Ilham Tohti is an academic who has been consistently outspoken on Uyghur rights in China. He has been detained numerous times as a result of his human rights work. According to UighurBiz, a website set up by Ilham Tohti, there are currently a number of plain-clothed men stationed outside the door of the human rights defender’s apartment who are preventing him from leaving the building or welcoming visitors. On 4 February 2013, Front Line Defenders issued already an urgent appeal when lham Tohti was prevented from boarding a flight bound for the United States at Beijing Capital Airport.Frontline NEWlogos-1 condensed version - cropped

http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/IlhamTohti

http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/21525

Courageous Chinese HRDs visit Liu Xia, wife of Liu Xiaobo, captured on video

January 23, 2013

 

Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo has been illegally held under house arrest for over 26 months. She has not been able to communicate with others or leave her apartment freely.

On the 28 December 2012 a group of activists attracted Liu Xia’s attention outside her apartment beneath her window. They discussed how to get around the security guards through the side door. Liu Xia welcomed them with hugs and tears.

The meeting was brief, just three minutes as they wanted to avoid conflict with the security guards whose backup team would rush in soon. Some friends kept talking with Liu Xia through the windows and Liu Xia threw out some chocolates to them to express her thanks. Some were arguing with the security guards, explaining that they were just Liu Xia’s friends to celebrate Liu Xiaobo’s birthday with Liu Xia.

Eventually, all the friends managed to return home safely. Amnesty International has translated the video about their visit into English. The original can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJumioueaAo

Wished I was there when Chen Guangcheng embraced Christian Bale

November 17, 2012

Elisa Massimino, President and CEO of New York based Human Rights First describes the scene as follows:

It was the most striking moment of our annual Human Rights Dinner, one that was shown on TV and across the Internet: Chen Guangcheng, in tears, embracing actor Christian Bale. Last year when Chen was under house arrest in China, authorities rebuffed Bale when he tried to visit the “barefoot lawyer.” The two met for the first time—with a hug—when Bale presented Chen with our Human Rights Award.

What gave this moment its power was Chen’s story: his teaching himself the law so that he could help others; his courage in the face of repeated persecution; his heroic journey from house arrest to the American embassy.

His story is ongoing. We gave him the award—and he accepted it—to highlight the need to help public interest lawyers and other persecuted Chinese citizens. They include his nephew, Chen Kegui, who—after defending himself and his family when government thugs broke into their home—was charged with a crime and imprisoned. “This award,” Chen said in his speech, “for me and for my colleagues, is an example of the waves building and gathering power. Together, we are the rising tide of kindness, decency and respect for the rule of law.”

While the dinner is an occasion for us to honor activists and others who have contributed to the struggle for human rights, it is also a chance for our organization to renew our commitment to challenging the United States to live up to its ideals. As Chen said, “My hope is that all of us, as we go forward, will make human rights a priority.”

I think it shows the power of awards