Vatican leaks scandal: Five go on trial in Holy See

Journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi (L) and Emiliano FittipaldiImage source, Reuters
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Journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi (L) and Emiliano Fittipaldi wrote about allegations of the misuse of charitable and other funds

Five people, including two investigative journalists and a Spanish priest, have gone on trial in the Vatican over the leaking and publication of secret documents.

The journalists, who recently published books about financial waste and wrongdoing at the Vatican, accused the Holy See of attacking press freedom.

If convicted, all five could be jailed for up to eight years.

The Vatican says the writers tried to put pressure on its staff.

Spanish priest Msgr Angelo Lucio Vallejo Balda and public relations expert Francesca Chaouqui were part of a special reform commission set up by Pope Francis to tackle the Vatican's financial holdings and propose reforms to improve cash flow to the poor.

Image source, Reuters
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From left to right: Gianluigi Nuzzi, Emiliano Fittipaldi, Francesca Chaouqui and Msgr Angel Lucio Vallejo Balda

The priest's secretary Nicola Maio has also been accused.

The journalists, Emiliano Fittipaldi and Gianluigi Nuzzi, bitterly criticised the Vatican's decision to put them on trial for publishing their books, Avarice and Merchants in the Temple.

Mr Nuzzi condemned the trial as "Kafkaesque and absurd", complaining that he had not been given a chance to read the indictment and had only met his court-appointed lawyer shortly before proceedings began.

Risky trial - by Caroline Wyatt, BBC religious affairs correspondent, Rome

The danger of this trial for the Vatican is that it will make it look vengeful and draw even more attention to the allegations contained in the books.

One of the journalists tweeted with the hashtag #NoInquisition. They were attending the trial voluntarily as the Vatican has no legal powers to force them, unless it moves to extradite them from Italy.

Image source, Twitter
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"I have just arrived in the Vatican, I will keep you posted #NoInquisizione," Mr Nuzzi tweeted

One key question is what the Vatican hopes to achieve.

If the journalists were found guilty, and given a jail sentence, it would create a bizarre diplomatic situation. The Vatican has only four holding cells and no long-term prison.

It would also need to extradite the journalists from Italy for something that is not a crime in Italy, and then ask Italy to imprison them. Italian law protects press freedom, unlike the laws of the Holy See.

And with a "holy year of mercy" starting this December, the Vatican also risks looking rather less than merciful when its dirty laundry is aired in public.

The court rejected an attempt by Mr Fittipaldi to have the case thrown out on the grounds that the case against him was unclear.

What he was accused of doing would not be considered criminal in Italy, Mr Nuzzi argued. "Publishing news is protected by the Italian constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights and the universal declaration of human rights," he said.

Much of Vatican criminal law dates back to an 1889 Italian penal code but a law criminalising the leaking of documents was introduced in 2013 in the wake of an earlier scandal involving the papal butler, dubbed Vat leaks.

Image source, AFP
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Two of those charged were members of a commission set up by Pope Francis

Media groups have urged the Vatican to drop the charges, along with international security body, the OSCE.

However, the Vatican prosecutor said it was not publishing freedom that was on trial but the journalists' "illicit behaviour".

The Vatican says the two books give a "partial and tendentious" version of events.

In Avarice, Emiliano Fittipaldi says "crazy" sums were spent on business class flights and furniture. Gianluigi Nuzzi's Merchants in the Temple describes a pattern of financial mismanagement and greed at the heart of the Vatican.

Nina Ognianova, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said: "Journalists should be allowed to carry out their role as watchdog and investigate alleged wrongdoing without fear of repercussions."