Paul Radu, co–founder of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)

STATUS: Concluded – Case filed in 2018 and later withdrawn by the claimant in January 2020, reaching a settlement on the eve of the trial.

Paul Radu, investigative journalist and co-founder of OCCRP, was pursued through the London libel courts between 2018-2020 by Javanshir Feyziyev, a sitting Azerbaijani MP and businessman named in the investigation The Azerbaijani Laundromat.

The Azerbaijani Laundromat investigation, published by 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 used 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 within Azerbaijan itself, where independent media and wider civil society continues to be subject to tight restrictions.

Despite Radu being a Romanian citizen and OCCRP being registered as an outlet in the US, Feyziyev was able to pursue Radu in UK courts. The plaintiff, despite being a sitting MP in Azerbaijan, appeared to have been able to establish a standing because he has property in the UK and has family members who live here full time. As Radu has himself pointed out: “London is a major real-estate hub that attracts the wealthy and powerful from all over the world — including many people of interest to those reporting on corruption… and it’s not hard to demonstrate a few British IP addresses accessed the investigative materials.”

Part of the reason the UK remains an attractive jurisdiction is that it is seen as easier to win libel cases in than other parts of the world. This is largely because the ‘burden of proof’ in a UK libel case is on the defendant – i.e. it is not up to the plaintiff to prove that the statement in question is false, rather the defendant must prove that the statement is true – which is often a far harder task than it might at first appear. Investigative journalists are usually in the business of presenting facts, rather than drawing conclusions as to what they might mean. However, as Radu notes “[I]n British courts, a judge determines what your carefully crafted wording means to them as a legal matter. They may decide the ‘legal meaning’ was that someone was the new godfather and had taken over the local crime group. Now you have to prove that judge’s legal meaning in court with real proof, even though you never said it, and maybe never meant it.”

During the two years of trial proceedings, OCCRP journalists continued their investigation, collecting new information and strengthening their story. Due to disclosure rules, they were required to share this information with their opponent, who ultimately decided to settle on the eve of the trial in London. Feyziyev made a settlement in terms favourable to OCCRP, which included the original reporting staying online. However, while defending the case the media outlet had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, as well as significant time, effort and stress diverting them from other investigations. As Radu himself has put it: “Even if you win, you lose.”

In January 2020, the libel case against Radu, was dropped on the eve of the trial opening at the Royal Courts of Justice in London. The agreed settlement meant the articles that had sparked the defamation claim against him stayed on OCCRP’s website albeit with a qualifying statement that the claimant “categorically denies involvement in money laundering or any unlawful activity.” During the two years it took the case to reach the trial stage, OCCRP journalists continued their investigation, collecting new information and strengthening their story, which, due to disclosure rules, they were required to share with their opponent who ultimately decided to withdraw.OCCRP’s original investigation, together with information that had been sealed in the Javanshir Feyziyev settlement, were later utilised in a National Crime Agency (NCA) investigation into £15 million of allegedly corruption funds held by the UK based wife, son and nephew of Feyziyev. In a civil proceeding, held in November 2021, a lawyer for the NCA presented a detailed analysis to bolster the agency’s argument that the money had flowed through the Azerbaijani Laundromat. In January 2022, a UK court approved the NCA’s seizure of £5.6m from members of Feyziyev’s family. In July 2021, the NCA had also seized £4 million from an Azerbaijani couple, Izzat Khanim and Suleyman Javadov, after they accepted that the money came into the UK unlawfully via the Azerbaijani laundromat.