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Europe’s top rights court sides with LuxLeaks whistleblower

Ex-PricewaterhouseCoopers employee Raphael Halet was fined $1,200 in 2015 for leaking secret Luxembourg tax documents.

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Europe’s top rights court reversed course on Tuesday, finding a symbolic fine for a whistleblower was still a violation of his freedom of expression. 

The European Court of Human Rights overturned its own 2021 decision and found that the fine issued by a Luxembourg court against ex-PricewaterhouseCoopers employee Raphael Halet for releasing documents as part of the so-called "LuxLeaks" financial scandal could have a chilling effect on the media. 

Inspired by a documentary involving a leak from another PwC employee, Halet used the email address [email protected] to send an investigative journalist the tax returns of companies like Amazon, Ikea and the iTunes branch of Apple in 2012.

Both Halet and French journalist Edouard Perrin were charged before a Luxembourg court with theft over the 16 tax returns. As a journalist, Perrin was eventually acquitted, but Halet was fined 1,000 euros ($1,200 at the time) plus a symbolic sum of one euro in compensation.

In May 2021, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights concluded the punishment was "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."

Halet appealed and the court’s Grand Chamber agreed with him Tuesday, finding he should be considered a whistleblower rather than a thief.

“The public interest in the disclosure of that information outweighed all of the detrimental effects arising from it,” the judges wrote in a 15-2 decision. The court was established in 1959 by the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the civil and political rights of Europeans. 

Acknowledging that it hadn’t before fully defined a whistleblower, the court used the ruling to lay out specific criteria for who qualifies. Whether the information disclosed was of public value, if the leaker was acting in good faith and the accuracy of the information are among the factors for courts to consider. 

“The judgement … should worry the multinationals that try to keep secret their attacks on the general interest,” Halet’s lawyer Christophe Meyer told Courthouse News via email. He said his client was comforted by the decision. 

The court ordered Luxembourg to pay Halet 55,000 euros ($59,000) in damages and expenses.

In the aftermath of the LuxLeaks scandal, the European Parliament established a special committee to look into sweetheart tax arrangements between member states and multinationals. In 2016, the tiny landlocked country changed its tax regulations to make it more difficult for big companies to negotiate beneficial tax arrangements. Three years later, the European Commission adopted protections for whistleblowers, safeguarding those who disclose information about malfeasance and wrongdoing. 

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