Two whistleblowers have been found guilty in the so-called Luxleaks tax scandal, which put Jean-Claude Junker under pressure on his first weeks as president of the European Commission.
A court in Luxembourg on Wednesday (29 June) gave a 12-month suspended sentence and a €1,500 fine to Antoine Deltour for leaking thousands of documents that exposed the huge tax breaks obtained by major international companies, including Apple, IKEA and Pepsi, at a time when Jean-Claude Juncker, now head of the European Commission, was prime minister.
Raphael Halet, who also blew the whistle, was given a nine-month suspended sentence and fined €1,000. Edouard Perrin, a French journalist who first exposed the deals, was acquitted.
Deltour and Halet, who were present at the trial, have 40 days to appeal the decision.
“It is a disgrace that this case has ever come to court, there is something fundamentally wrong with the legal system when those who expose wrong doing face trial while the perpetrators continue their lives as before,” said MEP Pervenche Berès, S&D Spokesperson for Economic and Monetary Affairs.
“People who expose illegal activity, government or employer misconduct should be celebrated not prosecuted,” she added, calling for real action to protect those exposing misconduct, harmful practices or wrongdoing for the public good.
In an email to AFP, a support group for Deltour said he would appeal, adding that the verdict amounted to a “warning” by the court to whistleblowers.
The two men faced a maximum penalty of 10 years for the charges which included stealing documents, revealing business secrets and violation of professional secrets.
The documents were originally used for a 2012 report on French public television but really exploded onto the world stage two years later with the huge “LuxLeaks” release of all 30,000 pages into the public domain.
MEPs and civil society organisations condemned the guilty verdicts.
“Tax dodgers will be emboldened by this verdict – the law is on their side, which is wrong. It will take an exceptionally brave individual to speak out about tax abuse now that they face the very real prospect of a huge fine or imprisonment,” said Max Lawson, Oxfam’s Inequality Policy Lead.
“Whistleblowers who expose tax dodging should be celebrated and protected – not prosecuted and there must be greater transparency in the tax system,” he added, urging governments to demand companies to publish reports of their economic activities in every country they operate.
Criticising the verdict, Green MEP Benedek Javor said the verdict should be a clear wake-up call on the need to finally recognise and protect the crucial role performed by whistleblowers in democratic systems.
“This trial has driven home the precarious situation of whistleblowers even in modern democratic states. The only way to ultimately resolve this is by providing clear legal protection for whistleblowers,” he argued.
“This information should not have been secret in the first place,” said Tove Ryding, tax justice coordinator at the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad). “There is no reason why citizens should not be allowed to know where multinational corporations do their business and where they pay their taxes.”
The European Parliament has called on the EU Commission to propose EU legislation to this end on a number of occasions and there is a clear legal basis for such a framework under the EU Treaties. Only last month, the Green group in the Parliament outlined a prototype for how such an EU law should look like.
More than 300 companies, including PepsiCo Inc, AIG Inc and Deutsche Bank AG, secured secret deals from Luxembourg to slash their tax bills, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported on 5 November 2014, quoting leaked documents.
The companies appear to have channelled hundreds of billions of dollars through Luxembourg and saved billions of dollars in taxes, the group of investigative journalists said, based on a review of nearly 28,000 pages of confidential documents.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who took the office in January 2015, was accused of being the cause or at least the protector of the scheme, in his former capacity of Prime Minister of Luxembourg.
He however survived a motion of censure in Parliament thanks to his comfortable majority and made a priority for his presidency to fight tax avoidance which depletes the EU countries of €70 billion annually.
The Commission wants to close loopholes and make sure multinationals should pay their taxes in the country in which they operate.
The so-called Tax Transparency Package will force the EU's 28 member states to share details of any tax deals agreed to with some of the world's biggest multinationals, in information sent automatically every three months. The plan aims to end the secrecy that allowed member states to often compete against each other to attract business and investment.