After losing his job as a loans specialist at a reputable bank, Mikail Talibov, a native of the southern Azerbaijani city of Ojakaran, spent two years haplessly fighting his dismissal in court.
Frustrated, Talibov finally aired his grievances on Facebook, posting comments accusing his former employer, AccessBank, of corruption and greed.
AccessBank hit back, becoming the first plaintiff in Azerbaijan to file a lawsuit under a controversial new provision criminalizing online defamation. Talibov was found guilty and sentenced to a year of “corrective labor” and a 20-percent loss of earnings. He has also been asked to post a withdrawal of his accusations.
Talibov, 31 and married, said he wasn’t surprised by the sentence, admitting he was expecting something “much harsher.”
But the August 14 ruling was sharply criticized by Amnesty International and the Council of Europe, whose human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, said on Twitter that the debut of new defamation law “further chills freedom of expression.”
Equally disappointing, for many rights watchers, is the fact that one of the entities behind Azerbaijan’s first online libel conviction is the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), an institution that pledges to uphold democratic values and freedom of expression in the countries where it operates.
Rashid Hajili, a lawyer who heads the Baku-based Media Rights Institute, says the EBRD’s role in the case is “regrettable.”
“Yes, we have big problems in Azerbaijan,” says Hajili, who represented Talibov during the trial. “But people here still hoped these international organizations would never take these kinds of steps. Unfortunately, we’re now witnessing a blow to free speech by these very organizations.”
AccessBank, which began operations in Azerbaijan in 2002 and has branded itself “Your Accessible European Bank,” is almost entirely held by international stockholders.
The EBRD holds a 20-percent stake, as do the Black Sea Trade and Development Bank, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and Kreditanstalt fur Wiederaufbau.
Two additional foreign-based firms, Access Microfinance Holding AG and LFS Financial Systems GmbH, share the remaining 20 percent.
Contacted in London and Tbilisi, the EBRD declined to discuss the bank’s connection to Talibov’s trial, saying it does not comment on individual court cases.
The bank also refused to immediately clarify its link to decision-making structures within AccessBank. The EBRD is not directly represented on the AccessBank management board. However, the board’s chairman, Michael Hoffman, is a former EBRD employee, with a seven-year track record that includes a stint in Russia.
Any link between the EBRD and the controversial defamation case would appear to contradict the EBRD’s founding mandate of upholding freedom of speech and other principles of democracy and rule of law in its countries of operation.
It would also underscore doubts about the West’s real commitment to human rights concerns in Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country that observers have accused of gift-giving “caviar diplomacy” in its dealings with the Council of Europe and other potential critics.
The EBRD, founded in 1991 to promote private-sector development in the countries of the former Eastern bloc, has invested more than $1.6 billion in Azerbaijan alone.
The bank formally cooperates with the Council of Europe in assessing reforms and has acknowledged the bleak state of human rights in Azerbaijan. The EBRD’s own strategy document for the country, available online, even notes that “decriminalization of libel is needed to protect freedom of expression for members of the media and is a vital component of democratic governance.”
In an interview with RFE/RL, AccessBank openly acknowledged bringing the defamation suit against Talibov, although it did not discuss whether the management board or any of the shareholders participated in the decision to launch the court case.
The IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, also refused to comment on the court decision.
An AccessBank spokesperson said the court case became necessary after Talibov — who the bank says was fired after an unexcused absence from work — refused to remove a Facebook page he had created mocking the bank’s name and posting false accusations about corruption.
Talibov’s page, created in March 2012, was titled “AccessBank-Haqsizbank,” which translates as “AccessBank-Unfair Bank.” Most of the posts took the form of unsubstantiated, sometimes nationalistic slogans accusing the bank of working in collusion with Armenia and taking 10-percent kickbacks on $60,000 deposits.
Another post criticized the bank as working “against Azerbaijan with money earned by Azerbaijanis.”
Talibov says he originally reported his corruption allegations to Azerbaijan’s Central Bank but took his complaints online amid continued harassment from AccessBank.
He also claims not all the accusations are his, and that other, unidentified, people added their own accusations to the page. But he says he refuses to refute the claims, insisting they are “realities” and that he did not post “false facts.”
In its final ruling, posted by AccessBank on its own Facebook page, a judge in Azerbaijan’s southern Astara district ruled that Facebook was not immune from libel law and constituted a form of “mass media.” The court also said that Talibov’s posts had been found to be “lies” that had damaged the bank’s “professional image.”
(The extent of Talibov’s damage to AccessBank remains difficult to quantify: a screen capture of the Facebook page provided by AccessBank shows that Talibov had received just 26 “likes” at the time charges were filed, a dismal showing in Internet-crazed Azerbaijan.)
‘The Rifle Has Been Fired’
The AccessBank case has garnered little attention in Baku, a possible result of the trial’s isolated location and the fact that Talibov has been perceived as less a heroic truth-teller and more a disgruntled ax-grinder.
But rights watchers say the verdict is a grim harbinger, and that more serious cases may lie ahead.
When the Azerbaijani parliament in May moved to criminalize online defamation — which now carries a maximum punishment of a $1,200 fine and a six-month jail term — many saw the move as a warning to Internet journalists ahead of presidential elections in October in which the autocratic incumbent, Ilham Aliyev, is set to run for a third term.
Amnesty International warned Azerbaijani authorities against using the vote “as a pretext to silence critical voices and meaningful debate.”
Still, some — like Hajili — harbored hopes the law would never be used. Now that it has, he says, there is reason to expect similar cases may soon be filed against online reporters and news outlets.
“When the law was passed, there was a lot of concern that it would be used against critical voices, even though the government was saying they weren’t planning to seriously implement it,” he said. “They said it would be like a loaded rifle handing on the wall. But it didn’t take too long. The rifle has already been fired and claimed its first victim.”
Hajili says Talibov will appeal his sentence. The former loan officer — who’s spent two years out of work — says he’s ready to return to court. But he admits a certain weariness at the thought of facing off against AccessBank one more time.
“I will appeal, but it’s difficult for me financially,” he says. “I’ve been offered free lawyer services, but it’s only an offer, nothing concrete.”