As pandemic rages, human rights struggles press on

Amid Covid-19’s unrelenting rampage across the world, peoples are asserting and defending their rights, and fighting against the abuses, corruption and impunity of state power. The task remains as crucial, if not more so, as surviving the pandemic.

Let me share with you, readers, two interesting developments in the legal arenas of Latin America and North America, where the movements for human rights and justice are showing persistence and gains in the face of formidable odds. Consider these in light of our situation in this country.

One involves a legal suit for compensation, won in an Ecuadorian court in 2011 by 30,000 indigenous people in Ecuador’s Amazon area, against the giant US oil firm Chevron (former Texaco). The court found Chevron to have deliberately dumped billions of gallons of oil waste in their communities, causing widespread cases of leukemia and other cancers among children.

The court awarded the plaintiffs $9.5 billion in damages to be paid by Chevron; the latter appealed the ruling before six appellate courts in Ecuador and in Canada – including both countries’ highest tribunals. All of them upheld the original ruling.

Whereas Chevron had accepted the jurisdiction of Ecuadorian courts, after this it turned to its homeground and sought ways via the US courts to impede if not nullify the implementation of the compensation ruling. It found one: by filing a civil “racketeering” suit against the indigenous people’s counsel, human rights lawyer Steven Donziger, and the 47 named plaintiffs because they originally sought $60 billion in damages. The suit landed in the sala of New York Southern District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan. This move reversed the situation: the winners of the case in Ecuador became the targets of litigation (amounting to persecution) under the US judicial system.

Last week, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL, founded in 1946) and the National Lawyers Guild in the US, filed before the US Court of Appeals a judicial misconduct complaint against Judge Kaplan. Co-signing the complaint were officials of 37 other bar/lawyers’ organizations – including the Philippines’ own National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL, an IADL affiliate) – plus 205 individual lawyers of varied nationalities. Altogether, IADL says the co-complainant groups represent 500,000 lawyers in 80 countries.

You might wonder why there’s that deluge of support for the complaint. Here’s why.

Backed up by a 40-page appendix with 15 exhibits (evidence) against Kaplan, the complaint shines a light on the judge’s “role in facilitating Chevron’s efforts to block the enforcement of a judgment obtained and affirmed by three levels of courts in Ecuador, which was adjudicated on a 200,000-page record developed over years of litigation.” Kaplan’s statements and actions over the last 10 years, it argues, “show him to have taken the role of counsel for Chevron… rather than that of a judge adjudicating a live controversy before him… he has violated his duty of impartiality under the canons of judicial conduct.”

The documents backing the complaint show, among others, the following: Kaplan denied Donziger a jury; severely restricted his ability to mount a defense; accused him of criminal contempt and hand-picked another judge to try the case, who in turn ordered Donziger detained at home, for 13 months now, even as the US Attorney (DOJ) had rejected the contempt charges; and allowed a private law firm, which services Chevron, to prosecute Donziger.

About the broad international participation in the case, the IADL says it’s “building a strong global basis to push back against the repression of human rights lawyers in the United States and fight corporate impunity.”

The other development, in Brazil, pertains to the advances attained by dedicated state investigators and prosecutors in building up a cluster of corruption cases, involving President Jair Bolsonaro’s three sons, his wife, and former aide for stealing public funds through ghost employees on government payrolls. Not surprisingly, government authorities initiated or backed moves to hamper the investigations, such as by making it harder for the probers to obtain bank records to build criminal cases.

This prompted Bolsonaro’s justice secretary, Sergio Moro, to resign. (As an investigative judge in a previous administration, Moro facilitated the charging and conviction for financial irregularities of the popular leftist former president, Inacio “Lula” da Silva, now freed from jail.) In April, Moro accused Bolsonaro of seeking to replace the federal police chief to shield his friends and relatives from criminal investigations. The Supreme Court is now looking into whether Bolsonaro’s conduct “amounted to obstruction of justice,” said a New York Times report last Monday.

Bolsonaro, a far-right politician and former army officer, was elected president in 2018 largely because he promised to root out graft and crime. Now, reported the NYT, “he stands accused of undermining the rule of law, as the scandals inch ever closer to the presidential palace.” By his demeanor in office, critics have compared Bolsonaro with US President Trump and Philippine President Duterte.

In court filings and press leaks, the investigators and prosecutors have shown the following:

* Beginning in 2007, Bolsonaro’s former aide, Fabricio Queiroz, helped the former’s eldest son Flavio, then a state representative, to steal public funds by pocketing part of the wages of people on his payroll. In 2018, when his father became president, Flavio was elected senator.

* Queiroz is being accused of “funneling thousands of dollars to Bolsonaro’s wife, Michelle, between 2011 and 2016. Neither of them can explain the transactions.

* Bank records obtained by prosecutors show that Queiroz’s daughter, on Bolsonaro’s congressional office payroll, made monthly remittances to her father that totalled tens of thousands of dollars between 2017 and 2018.

* Another Bolsonaro son, Carlos, is under investigation on similar charges of diverting public funds while he was a Rio de Janeiro city councilor. Along with his brother Eduardo, Carlos is also being questioned in connection with an online disinformation campaign.

With all these disclosures, Queiroz tried to evade arrrest but in June was nabbed in a house in Saõ Paulo belonging to one of Bolsonaro’s lawyers. Wide publicity of his arrest brought up raw information that Queiroz had sent Michelle Bolsonaro much more money than previously disclosed.

Recently, while visiting a cathedral in Brasilia, Bolsonaro was boldly asked by a reporter why his wife received $16,000 from his former aide who’s under investigation for corruption. The President shot back: “What I’d like to do is smash your mouth in.” Per the NYT report, thousands of Brazilians critical of Bolsonaro have posted the reporter’s question on social media.

At least, he didn’t tell the reporter, “What I’d like to do is shoot you dead.”

* * *

Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
September 5, 2020

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