Oil pollution in the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador, resulting from Texaco (now part of Chevron) operations. Steven Donziger helped win a $10 billion judgment for pollution of the Amazon and Chevron has sought revenge. Credit: Julien Gomba, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Why Biden Should Pardon Me to Uphold Climate Justice

What happened to me should not happen to anybody in any country that adheres to the rule of law.

About a month ago, a group of 14 prominent lawyers from the United States launched a global campaign to demand a pardon from President Joe Biden for my misdemeanor contempt conviction after I helped Amazon communities in Ecuador win a landmark $10 billion pollution judgement against Chevron. While I want a pardon for personal reasons — including the restoration of my freedom to travel and to earn a livelihood — this request is also a major opportunity for the White House to uphold its stated commitments on climate justice, human rights, and corporate accountability.

First, the personal.

I need this pardon because I am the only person in U.S. history to be privately prosecuted by a corporation. More specifically, the government (via a pro-corporate judge) gave a giant oil company (Chevron) the power to prosecute and lock up its leading critic. As a result of this unprecedented and frightening private prosecution, I still cannot travel out of the country and I have been prohibited from meeting with clients I have represented for over three decades. Nor can I practice law, maintain a bank account, or earn a livelihood. I am largely dependent for my survival on the support of people around the world who have contributed to my defense fund, which also pays my hefty legal fees to deal with Chevron’s attacks. I have no bank account because Chevron essentially stole (they would say “garnished”) all of my assets after a judge ordered me to reimburse the company millions of dollars for legal fees they spent trying to destroy me.

This obviously matters deeply to me, to my clients in Ecuador who are deeply suffering from the impacts of Chevron’s pollution, and to anyone who cares about ending corporate retaliation against the climate movement.

The fact 14 highly credible lawyers — among them Marty Garbus, Natali Segovia, and Michael Tigar — are representing me pro bono attests to the merits of the pardon request. To understand the the powerful arguments on our side, I would urge everyone to read the 12-page pardon letter in full, available here.

The private prosecution was carried out by Chevron and two of its U.S.-based corporate law firms, Gibson Dunn & Crutcher and Seward & Kissel. It happened after Judge Lewis A. Kaplan charged me with criminal contempt after I appealed a clearly illegal order that I turn over my computer and confidential case file to Chevron. This unprecedented order would have forced me as an attorney to violate my ethical duties to my clients and would have put their lives in danger. (The ostensible basis of the order was to allow Chevron to search my computer for supposed hidden bank accounts that might contain money to pay the company the roughly $5 million in legal fees Kaplan ordered that I pay them; the reality is that the reason was manufactured to give the judge a reason to lock me up.)

Significantly, Kaplan’s criminal contempt charges were rejected for prosecution by the regular federal prosecutor in New York, Geoffrey Berman. That decision prompted the judge to illegally appoint the Chevron law firm to act in place of the government prosecutor. Not only was the appointment of a private prosecutor in a case already rejected by the government entirely inappropriate, neither Kaplan nor the law firm ever disclosed to our team that Chevron had been a client until we discovered it months later. Because Chevron had wrested complete control of a public prosecution rejected by the government, I ended up detained for 993 days on a petty misdemeanor charge with a maximum sentence of 180 days. That time included six weeks in a federal prison during a Covid-19 lockdown. Before me, no lawyer had ever been locked up even one day on such a charge.

The entire prosecution was condemned as illegal by the United Nation’s Working Group On Arbitrary Detention ( decision here) and in a detailed report issued by a team of international trial monitors led by former U.S. Ambassador for War Crimes Stephen A. Rapp and Canadian human rights scholar Catherine Morris. It also was condemned as unconstitutional by three U.S. federal judges, including two from the Supreme Court (decision here). In addition, dozens of Nobel Laureates (see article) supported my campaign along with 120 civil society groups, among them Amnesty International and Global Witness (see letter).

No matter where one stands on the political spectrum, we should all be able to agree that what happened to me should not happen to anybody in any country that adheres to the rule of law.

The petition to President Biden from the 14 lawyers states that “a pardon would bring a measure of justice to a prosecution that has been widely criticized as a violation of international law … and as a grave threat to free speech.” It adds: “This pardon is not only critical to protect the First Amendment rights of all advocates regardless of their political orientation, but also is vital to protect the climate justice movement both in the U.S. and around the world.”

Natali Segovia, one of the leading Indigenous rights lawyers in the world, has taken the lead in organizing the lawyers to push for the pardon. This is what she said in our press release announcing the campaign:

Around the world, human rights defenders like Steven Donziger are targeted and even killed for their advocacy and work on Indigenous rights and environmental justice issues. Such extrajudicial human rights violations have come to be expected occurrences in the Global South and “developing” nations at the hands of powerful corporations and extractive corporations who act with impunity and collusion from state governments; for Indigenous peoples and allies that stand to protect the Earth, this is a known assumption of risk. Steven’s case, however, is emblematic of the weaponization of the law by a powerful corporation against a human rights defender—an attorney, to be exact—and sets a dangerous precedent. We know the criminalization of Water Protectors and Land Defenders is on the rise, now we are seeing the rise of corporate-sponsored prosecution, RICO, and SLAPP tactics. If it could happen to Steven, a Harvard-trained human rights lawyer, it could happen to anyone on climate frontlines. This is what we are guarding against. This is why a pardon for Steven barely hits the tip of the iceberg to reverse course, but is a necessary step in ensuring fundamental rights of due process and human rights in the United States.

Others representing me include Jeanne Mirer, the president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers; Nadine Strossen, the former president of the American Civil Liberties Union; Beher Azmy, the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights; Terrance P. Collingsworth, a leading international human rights lawyer and the director of International Rights Advocates; Jeffrey Haas, the longtime civil rights lawyer who successfully represented the family of Fred Hampton after he was killed by Chicago police; Nadia Ahmad, a visiting professor at Yale and a leading environmental and corporate accountability lawyer; and Scott Badenoch, Jr., an environmental justice attorney and a visiting scholar at the Environmental Law institute.

Our operating assumption is that it is absolutely possible to obtain a pardon if we fight for it. That means creating massive public pressure on why this is so needed not just for one person and his family, but for all justice advocates in our country and across the globe. This obviously matters deeply to me, to my clients in Ecuador who are deeply suffering from the impacts of Chevron’s pollution, and to anyone who cares about ending corporate retaliation against the climate movement.

The best way to support the pardon campaign is to donate at our new crowdfunding site here and to sign the petition here.

This piece originally ran on Steven Donziger’s SubStack, Donziger on Justice, and was republished on Common Dreams. You can also support his campaign by subscribing to his SubStack or visiting his campaign website.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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