Steven Donziger has been detained at home since August 2019, the result of a Kafkaesque legal battle stemming from his crusade on behalf of Indigenous Amazonians
Many of us will have felt the grip of claustrophobic isolation over the past year, but the lawyer Steven Donziger has experienced an extreme, very personal confinement as a pandemic arrived and then raged around him in New York City.
On Sunday, Donziger reached his 600th day of an unprecedented house arrest that has resulted from a sprawling, Kafkaesque legal battle with the oil giant Chevron.
Donziger spearheaded a lengthy crusade against the company on behalf of tens of thousands of Indigenous people in the Amazon rainforest whose homes and health were devastated by oil pollution, only to himself become, as he describes it, the victim of a “planned targeting by a corporation to destroy my life”.
Since August 2019, Donziger has been restricted to his elegant Manhattan apartment, a clunky court-mandated monitoring bracelet he calls “the black claw” continuously strapped to his left ankle.
He cannot even venture into the hallway, or to pick up his mail. Exempted excursions for medical appointments or major school events for his 14-year-old son require permission days in advance. An indoor bike sits by the front door in lieu of alternative exercise options.
“There’s no comparison to quarantine because I can’t even go outside for a walk. If my kid is sick I can’t go to the drug store to get a prescription,” Donziger said. “I never truly understood freedom until I was put in this situation.”
The nights are hardest for Donziger, when he has to struggle to get his jeans off over the boxy tag and lie in bed next to his wife “with the government still there on my ankle”. Each morning he wakes up in angst. A flag reading “SOS Free Steven” sometimes flutters defiantly from the window, but efforts to end the unusually long detention have yet to be granted.
“Certainly it’s very important to corporations like Chevron to protect themselves from liability from ecological harms,” she said. “They’ve refused to apologize to the victims. They don’t want to show any vulnerability.”
A Chevron spokesman said an international tribunal has confirmed the Ecuadorian decision was “fraudulent” and he denied the company has persecuted its longtime adversary. “Donziger has no one to blame but himself for his problems,” the spokesman said. “The court initiated the pending criminal case against him. Chevron is not involved in that case.”
In Donziger’s eyes, the only real corruption has occurred in the US system, not Ecuador’s, a symptom of what he views as a “colonial” mindset that has airily dismissed judgements made outside the US and obscured the ultimate protagonists of this saga, the people of Lago Agrio. Shortly before his house arrest,
in the summer of 2019, Donziger toured some villages in Ecuador, discovering some people he’d previously met had died of cancer. The toxic pits remain, despite a piecemeal attempt by the government at a cleanup.