Three men accused of leaking documents that implicated hundreds of multinational companies in the LuxLeaks tax avoidance scandal rejected the charges brought against them Tuesday, in the first day of their trial before a Luxembourg court.
The case is being watched closely by advocates of stronger legal safeguards for whistleblowers, days after the European Parliament approved a new law making it easier for companies to protect their trade secrets.
The LuxLeaks scandal came to light in 2014, when an international team of investigative journalists reported that Luxembourg had helped more than 340 multinationals - including Pepsi, IKEA and Deutsche Bank - to avoid paying billions of euros in taxes.
The findings gave new momentum to a global crackdown on corporate tax avoidance and evasion.
The three men before court are accused of theft, illegal access to a computer system and the release of trade secrets, among other things. They could face prison sentences of up to 10 years.
The accused are French journalist Edouard Perrin and two former employees of the global accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Antoine Deltour and a man identified only as Raphael H.
All three rejected the charges against them, with defence lawyer Philippe Penning arguing that the confidential documents had been easily accessible to hundreds of people at the accountancy firm.
The prosecution accuses Deltour of being the main source of the data leaks. The court was told that in a half-hour period on October 13, 2010, he had copied 2,669 documents out of the company database, containing 45,000 pages of information about tax deals struck with large companies.
Of these, around 28,000 pages had contained information on so-called tax rulings - beneficial tax regimes offered to corporations.
But PwC employee Anita Bouvy admitted to the court that the documents had been "easily accessible," and said she could not rule out that Deltour had found them by accident.
A software error had allowed him to access the files via a scanner - a lapse that has since been rectified, Bouvy said. "We can say today that this cannot happen again," she added.
The second former PwC employee, Raphael H, is accused of forwarding 16 tax declarations to Perrin.
Several hundred sympathizers came to the Luxembourg courthouse on Tuesday to express their support for the alleged whistleblowers. "Thank you, Antoine," they called after the first day of hearings. The trial has been scheduled to last six days.
Green EU lawmaker Sven Giegold expressed hope that the case would send out a message across Europe that "there cannot be such a trial again."
"Whoever provides information to the public in the interest of the common good, and thus helps to bring a scandal to light, must not be punished," Giegold told dpa, adding: "In this respect the trial is completely absurd."
"Whistleblowers who expose tax dodging should be celebrated and protected, not prosecuted," added Max Lawson of the anti-poverty campaign group Oxfam, in a statement issued ahead of the trial.
Earlier this month, the European Union's legislature passed a law introducing an EU-wide definition of trade secrets and aiming to ensure legal redress for companies whose secrets are misused.
But media and civil society organizations have expressed concern that this could make it easier to prosecute whistleblowers and the journalists who publish their information.