[LUXEMBOURG] Three Frenchmen went on trial in Luxembourg on Tuesday accused of an "incredible" document leak that exposed huge tax breaks for major global companies, in an issue brought sharply into focus by the Panama Papers scandal.
Antoine Deltour and Raphael Halet, two former employees at services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), and French journalist Edouard Perrin face charges over the theft of thousands of confidential files in the so-called LuxLeaks scandal.
The opening of the trial brought an unusual intervention by France in fellow EU-member Luxembourg's legal affairs, 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.
The eruption of the Luxleaks affair in November 2014 exposed "sweetheart" deals that saved firms including Apple, IKEA and Pepsi billions of dollars in taxes while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was Luxembourg's prime minister.
A series of global news outlets examined 28,000 pages of documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), revealing the full scale of the tax breaks won by 340 companies.
LuxLeaks was the biggest expose of its kind until this month's publication of the Panama Papers, which revealed links between a number of international leaders and offshore shell companies that can be used to hide or launder wealth.
Former auditor Mr Deltour, 31, told the court on Tuesday he "recognises the substance" of the facts of the case while Mr Halet, 40, and Mr Perrin, 45, both dispute the charges.
"I feel very calm, I acted in the public interest," Mr Halet told AFP as he arrived for the trial.
Mr Deltour is accused of stealing documents from the database of the accounting firm before he left in 2010, revealing business secrets, violation of professional secrets and money laundering.
The documents later became the basis of a 2012 story by Mr Perrin on state-owned France 2 television but it stayed under the international radar until the LuxLeaks document dump.
Mr Perrin is charged with being an accomplice in all the offences, while Halet - who is accused of being behind a separate leak - faces the same charges as Deltour.
The first witness, PwC internal auditor Anita Bouvy, told the court that investigators narrowed the leak down to Mr Deltour, finding that he had accessed 2,669 documents in 29 minutes on the eve of his departure from the firm.
"Ninety-two documents per minute, it's just incredible," she told the court.
"Only one person, Mr Antoine Deltour, had access to these documents without being able to justify the access to this data by his position." In his PwC personnel file, Mr Deltour had mentioned his "frustration" because of the large amount of work he had, and had criticised working practices at PwC, Ms Bouvy said.
Ahead of the trial Mr Deltour insisted he had no regrets.
"At first I was just an anonymous source, and then I found myself at the front of the stage," Mr Deltour told AFP on the eve of the trial.
The LuxLeaks and Panama Papers scandals have together forced the EU to take tougher action against tax-avoiding companies, with ministers agreeing at the weekend on a fresh series of measures to fight such deals.
Mr Juncker faced huge pressure in his first weeks as Commission head over the huge tax breaks granted to companies on his watch as premier of the small European duchy.
European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who has launched tax inquiries into a number of firms including Amazon, has been invited to testify at the trial in Luxembourg.
Aid group Oxfam, which has campaigned for a crackdown on tax avoidance, said the LuxLeaks defendants should be "celebrated and not prosecuted".
Activist group Eurodad said the men on trial in Luxembourg were "heroes".
"The court case against them is a farce. They acted in the public interest, and deserve protection from prosecution," Eurodad's tax coordinator Tove Maria Ryding said.