A trial against three people facing charges of leaking documents revealing secret tax deals has opened in Luxembourg. Whistleblower and press rights groups have condemned the trial.
Two former employees of accountancy firm PwC and a journalist accused of leaking thousands of secret tax documents went on trial in Luxembourg on Tuesday, in a controversial case that opponents say targets whistleblowers and press freedom.
The so-called LuxLeaks affair revealed how Luxembourg cut billions of euros in secret tax deals with multinational corporations, an issue that has gained renewed public focus following the release of the Panama Papers.
Two former PwC employees, Antoine Deltour and Raphael Halet, are charged with handing over sensitive documents to journalist Edouard Perrin, who published a series of stories in 2012 and 2013 that exposed the scandal.
Deltour stands accused of stealing documents, violating professional secrets and money laundering. Perrin is being charged as an accomplice, while Halet is faced with the same charges as Deltour for a separate leak.
Deltour only had access to the confidential documents because of a security glitch, a court heard on the opening day of the trial Tuesday.
The opening of the trial brought an intervention by France, with Finance Minister Michel Sapin saying that he "would like to offer (Deltour) all our solidarity."
Around 50 supporters shouted "Thank you, Antoine, thank you Antoine!" as the defendants arrived at the courtroom in Luxembourg for the start of the trial, which is expected to last until May 4.
If found guilty, they face jail terms of up to 10 years.
Former auditor Deltour, 31, told the court on Tuesday he "recognises the substance" of the facts of the case while Halet, 40, and Perrin, 45, both dispute the charges. "I feel very calm, I acted in the public interest," Halet told AFP as he arrived for the trial.
Deltour's lawyer said his client did not set out to find the documents, but only came across them by chance. "He found them while looking for training documents," the lawyer, Philippe Penning, told reporters.
The tax affair gained world attention after journalists at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published a series of reports in 2014 based on the 28,000 documents. The global investigation showed how Luxembourg became a secret tax haven for 340 companies, including Apple, Pepsi and IKEA.
The affair ensnared European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who was prime minister of Luxembourg when multinational corporations hid billions of euros in the duchy.
EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in a January interview with "Euractiv" that the LuxLeaks revelations changed "the momentum of the debate about corporate taxation in Europe."
"I think everyone should thank both the whistleblower and the investigative journalists who put a lot of work into this," she said.
ICIJ condemned the trial as an attack on press freedom and the protection of whistleblowers, the organization's director, Gerard Ryle, said in a statement on Monday.
"Perrin's reporting triggered worldwide public outrage over the fairness of tax policies and it led to reform, most notably in the European Union. There was widespread public interest in the information that was revealed," he added.
Transparency International, aid group Oxfam and the activist group Eurodad similarly condemned the trial as an attack on whistleblowers who revealed information in the public interest.
Observers say the case requires striking a balance between maintaining secrecy laws, promoting transparency and protecting a financial sector that is the backbone of Luxembourg's economy.
Luxembourg has whistleblower protection laws, but they are limited to corruption and moneylaundering.
If convicted, the defendants could face up to five years in prison and 1.25 million euros ($1.4 million) in fines. The trial is expected to last until May 4.
cw/kms (AFP, Reuters)