Azerbaijan: SLAPPs, media freedom and the prevention of ‘open justice’
Join us for a discussion on media freedom and democracy through the lens of reporting on the Azerbaijani Laundromat.
SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) are frequently part of a much bigger picture – one about censorship and corruption, not just abroad, but increasingly in the UK too. This event will highlight the impact that the UK’s facilitation of corrupt wealth stolen by elites in autocratic regimes has on media freedom and democracy through the examination of one particular story – the Azerbaijani Laundromat.
The Azerbaijani Laundromat investigation, published by the Organised Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP) in September 2017, revealed a “complex money-laundering operation and slush fund that handled $2.9 billion over a two-year period through four shell companies registered in the UK.” OCCRP reported that between 2012-14 members of Azerbaijan’s political elite were using these funds to “pay off European politicians, buy luxury goods, launder money, and otherwise benefit themselves.” This was happening at a time of severe crackdown inside of Azerbaijan, where independent media and wider civil society continues to be subject to tight restrictions.
This evening’s discussion will focus on the experiences of journalists who uncovered this scheme. Khadija Ismayilova has faced significant persecution in Azerbaijan as a result of her reporting, including her arrest and imprisonment in 2014. While she was released from prison in 2016, by presidential pardon, her conviction was not overturned and she remained subject to a travel ban and other probationary measures until last year. Meanwhile, her colleague Paul Radu, a Romanian citizen, was pursued through the London libel courts between 2018-2020 by Javanshir Feyziyev, an Azerbaijani MP and businessman named in the investigation. Feyziyev eventually decided to withdraw his case in January 2020 and make a settlement in terms favourable to OCCRP, including the original reporting staying online. However, the almost two years of pre-trial proceedings had cost the media outlet hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as significant time, effort and stress diverting them from other investigations.
The session will also explore the less reported, but connected, threats to the principle of ‘open justice’ within the UK legal system. Since 2020, Martin Bentham at the Evening Standard has been challenging anonymity orders awarded to those subject to National Crime Agency (NCA) investigations for their links to the Azerbaijani laundromat scheme, which have further shielded them from public scrutiny.
These include Izzat Khanim and Suleyman Javadov, from whom the NCA seized £4 million in July 2021 after they accepted that the money came into the UK unlawfully via the Azerbaijani laundromat. The Javadovs entered the UK through the ‘golden visa’ scheme and Mrs Javadova was granted citizenship in February 2018, the same year the NCA started investigating the couple. In January 2022, a UK court approved the NCA’s seizure of £5.6m collectively from the family members of the Azerbaijani MP who sued Radu.
Dr Susan Hawley, a renowned anti-corruption specialist, will join us to highlight how the Azerbaijan laundromat is sadly not a singular example of what happens when the UK fails to address the misuse of its legal and financial systems and will outline what measures need to be taken to remedy this issue.
This event is being organised as part of the second UK Anti-SLAPP Conference, which aims to spotlight solutions to legal threats against media freedom. The conference will take place in a hybrid format, accessible both online and in-person, in London on Monday 28 and Tuesday 29 November. To register to attend online, and get updates on speakers and sessions, please sign up through Eventbrite. Space to attend in person will be limited, so please write to firstname.lastname@example.org to apply.
Find the live footage from the event here:
London and Online
Khadija Ismayilova, Independent investigative journalist, Azerbaijan
Paul Radu, Investigative journalist, Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, OCCRP
Dr Susan Hawley, Executive Director, Spotlight on Corruption
Martin Bentham, Home Affairs Editor, Evening Standard
Chair: Susan Coughtrie, Deputy Director, Foreign Policy Centre