European Rights Court Upholds Fine in LuxLeaks Whistleblower Case

A Luxembourg court convicted two PricewaterhouseCoopers employees for giving a journalist documents about sweetheart tax deals in the Western European country.

A train passes over a stone bridge in Luxembourg in 2013. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — A 1,000 euro ($1,200) fine plus a symbolic sum of one euro for leaking secret Luxembourg tax documents did not violate the rights of an ex-PricewaterhouseCoopers employee, Europe’s top rights court found on Tuesday. 

In a ruling only available in French, the European Court of Human Rights said the fine issued by a Luxembourg court against Raphael Halet for releasing 16 tax returns of U.S. companies as part of the so-called LuxLeaks financial scandal did not violate his freedom of expression. 

The Strasbourg-based court wrote in an English press release that the fine is “a relatively mild penalty that would not have a real chilling effect on the exercise of the applicant’s freedom or that of other employees.”

In 2012, using the email address saveonemilliondollars@gmail.com, Halet sent investigative journalist Edouard Perrin the PwC tax returns of companies like Amazon, Ikea and the iTunes branch of Apple. Halet was inspired by a documentary about documents his fellow PwC employee and fellow French national Antoine Deltour had leaked to Perrin, revealing large tax breaks multinational companies had negotiated with Luxembourg. 

Halet, Deltour and Perrin were all ultimately charged with disclosing documents that were subject to professional secrecy. Perrin, as a journalist, was acquitted, but both Halet and Deltour were convicted and given suspended jail sentences and fines. 

Under the European Convention on Human Rights, which established the court in 1959, European citizens have a right to freedom of expression.

In a landmark 2011 decision, Heinisch v. Germany, the rights court ordered Germany to pay damages to a former nursing home employee after she was fired for revealing mistreatment at the home where she worked. The court found that citizens have the right to report wrongdoing by their employer and courts must strike a balance between the company’s reputation and the employee’s right to expression. 

The seven-judge panel concluded Tuesday that the Luxembourg Court of Appeal appropriately considered those concerns when it ruled against Halet. The rights court essentially found that because these tax deals had already been widely reported on, Halet’s additional leaks did not add enough new information to warrant protection for their disclosure. 

“In reaching the conclusion that the documents disclosed by Mr. Halet had been of insufficient interest to justify acquitting him, the Court of Appeal had examined the evidence in the case carefully in the light of the criteria established by the Court’s case-law,” the Strasbourg court said in its press release.

Following a 1990 directive from the European Union that allowed businesses operating in Europe to headquarter themselves in the country of their choice, companies flocked to the tiny landlocked country. With a population of just over 600,000, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is home to the headquarters of more than 50,000 businesses.

In 2014, using 28,000 pages of leaked documents, some 80 journalists revealed sweetheart tax agreements between Luxembourg and 340 multinational companies. The country has pushed back on claims that it is a tax haven.

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