Donziger asks judge to heed U.N. experts' finding of 'arbitrary' detention

Attorney Steven Donziger arrives at the Manhattan Federal Courthouse in New York
Attorney Steven Donziger at the Manhattan Federal Courthouse in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S. May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
  • Disbarred lawyer Steven Donziger to be sentenced Friday
  • Donziger, whose multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against Chevron was found tainted by fraud, has been under house arrest in related contempt case

Disbarred U.S. lawyer Steven Donziger, who faces sentencing Friday for criminal contempt stemming from his decades-long legal battle with Chevron Corp, is asking a Manhattan federal judge to consider a new finding by independent United Nations experts that his home confinement violates international human rights law.

In an opinion first made public on Thursday, a panel of five international jurists concluded that Donziger's home detention for more than two years violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a landmark pact that guarantees fundamental freedoms, to which the United States is a party.

The human rights experts, appointed by the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, said that "the appropriate remedy" would be to "accord (Donziger) an enforceable right to compensation."

Despite his contempt conviction and a judge's earlier civil fraud findings against him, Donziger has maintained support among some environmental and rights groups. Amnesty International petitioned the independent U.N. experts earlier this year to seek Thursday's opinion, which the judge hearing Donziger's criminal case is not bound to consider.

The London-based human rights group said in a statement that U.S. authorities "must promptly implement the decision by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention calling for the immediate release of Steven Donziger."

Donziger, who was disbarred in New York last year, was charged in August 2019 with criminal contempt for, among other things, failing to turn over his computer, phones and other electronic devices. Senior U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska has placed him under home detention since August 2019 to address concerns of flight risk. The judge found him guilty in May for "repeatedly and willfully" defying court orders.

His criminal case stems from post-judgment orders in a civil case in which a Manhattan judge in 2014 barred U.S. enforcement of a $9.5 billion judgment against Chevron Corp that Donziger had won in an Ecuadorian court. The judge said the Ecuadorian judgment had been secured through bribery, fraud and extortion.

Donziger on Thursday told Reuters he would ask the Department of Justice to implement the U.N. experts' conclusions.

"There are going to be damages that we are going to seek from the U.S. government for this illegal deprivation of liberty," he said.

Donziger's lawyers include Martin Garbus of Offit Kurman.

The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rita Glavin, a private lawyer who was appointed to prosecute the case, said the U.N. working group hadn't reviewed the court record and relied entirely on a Donziger ally for information. "As a result, the many material omissions and errors render this 'opinion' unreliable and misleading," she said.

The U.N. experts' opinion says the United States breached international law by putting Donziger under house arrest for about four times the maximum sentence of six months that he faces in his contempt case. His home confinement in New York was prolonged by repeated postponements of his trial due to the coronavirus pandemic and issues with his legal representation.

Donziger has requested a sentence of time served ahead of Friday's sentencing.

The case is United States v. Donziger, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 1:19-cr-00561.

For United States: Rita Glavin of Glavin PLLC; and Brian Maloney of Seward & Kissel

For Donziger: Martin Garbus of Offit Kurman; and Ronald Kuby

(NOTE: This story has been updated with a comment from special prosecutor Rita Glavin and with a statement from Amnesty International.)

Read more:

Judge grants Donziger's request to teleconference Oct. sentencing

Disbarred Chevron foe Donziger pleads for time served sentence

Special prosecutor: 'no specific recommendation' on Donziger sentence

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Thomson Reuters

New York-based correspondent covering environmental, climate and energy litigation.