* Judge dismissed for releasing suspected drug trafficker
* Chevron accuses Judge, plaintiffs' lawyers of wrongdoing
* Ecuador plaintiffs want to enforce $18 bln ruling abroad
By Eduardo Garcia and Alexandra Valencia
QUITO, March 9 Oil company Chevron
on Friday said it hopes the dismissal of the Ecuadorean judge
who issued an $18 billion ruling against the U.S. firm for
polluting the Amazon will dissuade foreign courts from enforcing
Two Ecuadorean judges involved in levying one of the largest
verdicts ever for environmental damages worldwide were
sanctioned over an unrelated drug case, but Chevron hopes their
removal from the bench will help them win legal battles against
the fine in both Ecuador and the United States.
Judges Nicolas Zambrano and Leonardo Ordonez were dismissed
in late February from their posts for releasing a suspected drug
trafficker in an act of "obvious negligence or an inexcusable
mistake," the country's judicial watchdog said on Thursday.
Ordonez was involved in the Chevron case until late 2010,
and Zambrano issued the hefty sentence against the company in
February 2011 for spilling tons of toxic waste in the jungle and
causing the illness to indigenous people.
Chevron argues the Ecuadorean plaintiffs influenced Zambrano
to rule against the company and is pursuing a separate
racketeering lawsuit in the United States against the plaintiffs
and their attorneys.
Since Chevron no longer has assets in Ecuador, the
plaintiffs are trying to get the ruling enforced outside the
OPEC-member country, targeting assets in Venezuela and Panama to
collect damages. But Chevron says doubts over the judges'
credibility should make foreign courts think twice.
"Any court in any country that observes the rule of law
would surely have to consider the latest developments concerning
Zambrano, as well as a mountain of other evidence of wrongdoing
by the plaintiffs' lawyers, when asked to enforce the fraudulent
judgment," Chevron spokesman James Craig told Reuters.
The legal saga that has spanned nearly two decades is being
watched closely by the oil industry for precedents that could
impact other big claims against companies accused of pollution
in the countries where they operate.
The case has also become a mantle for environmental
activists who cast the decision in their favor as victory of
David vs. Goliath proportions.
The plaintiff's say Chevron is focusing on judges' record
to draw attention away from evidence Texaco, which was acquired
by Chevron in 2001, dumped oil-drilling waste in unlined pits in
the forest in the 1970s and 1980s.
"The only benefit that Chevron can get from this ... is to
taint the image of the Ecuadorean judiciary, but from a legal
viewpoint this will have no influence in the case, is just part
of Chevron's show," Pablo Fajardo the lead lawyer for the
plaintiffs told Reuters.
The oil major denies the accusations and says Texaco
properly cleaned up all the pits for which it was responsible.
Filled with intrigue, accusations of corruption, bribery and
dirty tricks, the complicated case is now being fought on three
fronts: Ecuador's Supreme Court, where judges are weighing an
appeal; a New York court handling the racketeering lawsuit filed
by the company; and an international arbitration tribunal.