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.

Related stories

Latest news

Syrian opposition rules out future role for President al-Assad

The Syrian opposition said Friday it would not accept any role for President Bashar al-Assad in the future of the war-torn country, reacting to a recent US shift saying that removing al-Assad is no longer a priority for Washington.

Russian Army integrates breakaway forces of Georgian province

Parts of the small fighting forces of the Georgian breakaway province of South Ossetia have been placed under Russian military control, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Friday.

Czech Republic's Pilsner Urquell beer is now Japanese

Japanese brewing company Asahi completed its takeover of the Czech brewery Pilsner Urquell on Friday, Asahi said in a statement.

Judge approves 25-million-dollar settlement of Trump University case

A US district judge on Friday approved a 25-million-dollar settlement of lawsuits and state fraud allegations against Trump University, the US president's now-defunct business venture.

Former Thai premier Thaksin to junta on reconciliation: 'Cut me out'

Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Friday announced that he is not interested in the junta-led reconciliation process, three days after the junta handed him a half-a-billion-dollar tax bill for his past business deal.

Dalic: We welcome possible deal between Agrokor and banks

The government welcomes the possibility of an agreement being concluded between the Agrokor food company and creditor banks, and the bill on vitally important companies is not a fallback plan but the result of the government's care for the overall economic and financial stability of Croatia, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Martina Dalic told a press conference in Zagreb on Friday.

Croatia, China sign action plan for cooperation in agriculture

The Croatian and Chinese ministries of agriculture on Friday signed an action plan for cooperation in the field of agriculture for the period 2017-2018, the Croatian ministry said in a statement.

ZSE indices up, Agrokor shares in focus of investor interest

The Zagreb Stock Exchange (ZSE) indices on Friday rose by more than 1.8%, with stocks of the Agrokor food and retail concern being in the focus of investor interest again.

Berlin police defend handling of Berlin market attacker

Berlin police defended themselves on Friday against accusations that they stopped surveillance on Berlin Christmas market attacker despite knowing in June 2016 he was dangerous.

Croatia, creditors tailor emergency measures to save tottering giant

Croatia's tottering retail and food giant Agrokor reached an agreement with its creditors, putting its debts standby and allowing it to continue working during emergency restructuring, the Croatian branch of Austria's Erste Bank said Friday.

Agrokor's creditors say standstill agreement to go into force today

A standstill agreement regarding the Agrokor concern's existing financial obligations to banks will take effect on Friday, additional capital will be injected into the concern in the coming days and the concern will be actively restructured, which includes a change of its management, it was said on Friday after a meeting between Agrokor's suppliers and creditor banks.

Palestinians, UN slam Israel's new settlement plan

Palestinians, Israeli activists and the UN lambasted the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, a day after it gave the go-ahead for the first new West Bank settlement in a quarter of a century.

South Sudan rebels release three abducted foreign oil workers

South Sudanese rebels have released three foreign engineers they abducted in early March in the oil-rich Upper Nile region, Foreign Affairs Ministry official Mawein Makol Arik said on Friday.

Turkish opposition: Imprisoned party chief has gone on hunger strike

The head of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition party has launched a hunger strike from prison.

European leagues threaten Champions League schedule clashes

The European Professional Football Leagues (EPFL) on Friday threatened schedule clashes on Champions League matchdays in an ongoing dispute with the governing body UEFA.

Danish court revokes citizenship of IS volunteer

A Danish appellate court on Friday stripped a man of his Danish citizenship for volunteering to fight for the extremist Islamic State in Syria.

Banks and Agrokor agree on key elements of standstill agreement

Member banks of the coordinating committee of financial creditors and representatives of the Agrokor food company have in principle agreed on key elements of a standstill agreement, which is expected to be signed later today, announcing changes in the company's management team, Erste Bank said in a statement on Friday afternoon.

Syrian man on trial in Sweden; mosque attack labelled terrorism

A Syrian man went on trial Friday in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, charged with terrorism and arson after an attack last year on a building used as an assembly hall by Shiite Muslims.