At the first hearing in a controversial Vatican trial of five people accused of leaking Holy See documents, judges have thrown out a request by one of the defendants to drop the case because it violates human rights.
Emiliano Fittipaldi, one of two authors on trial who published confidential reports of greed and corruption at the Vatican, told the court he was incredulous to find himself on trial for “simply having published news.”
Fittipaldi faces up to eight years in jail, alongside fellow Italian author Gianluigi Nuzzi, for publishing findings from a Vatican committee set up by Pope Francis in 2013 to weed out waste and wrongdoing at the Vatican.
Also facing trial for violating Vatican laws against leaks are three members of the committee accused of releasing the information: Spanish priest Angel Lucio Vallejo Balda, who is currently locked up in a Vatican cell, his assistant Nicola Maio and Italian public-relations expert Francesca Chaouqui. All five were present in the courtroom Tuesday.
After asking to address the court, Fittipaldi said: “I feel I must express above all my incredulousness at finding myself a defendant before a court which is not that of my country, even though I wrote and published in Italy the book for which I have been incriminated.”
He would not be prosecuted in Italy, he added, because he was not accused of publishing “false or defamatory news, but simply of publishing news — activity protected and guaranteed by the Italian Constitution, by the European convention on human rights and the universal declaration of human rights.”
Fittipaldi added it was “unacceptable” that the Vatican court had not specified which leaked documents he was being tried for publishing, leaving him unable to defend himself in court.
Speaking during a break in the trial, Nuzzi called the trial “Kafkaesque.”
“We are not martyrs, just journalists,” he said. “But there are principles that must be defended.”
The Vatican’s indictment, published Saturday, stated that both authors “solicited and applied pressure, especially on Vallejo Balda, to obtain secret documents and information.”
Addressing the court, Vatican prosecutor Roberto Zannotti argued that the two authors were not on trial for publishing the information, but for the pressure they used to obtain it. The court was not under obligation to specify which documents they were accused of publishing, he added, since the reference was obviously to those contained in their books.
The panel of four lay judges, led by Judge Giuseppe Dalla Torre, then retired to deliberate before ruling that the trial would continue.
The trial has provoked broad opposition from journalists’ associations and rights groups, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Journalists must be free to report on issues of public interests and to protect their confidential sources,” Dunja Mijatovic, the organization’s representative on freedom in the media, said Monday.
The Vatican legislation on leaks was introduced by Francis in 2013 after former Pope Benedict’s letters were provided by Benedict’s butler to Nuzzi, who published them. The butler, Paolo Gabriele, was given 18 months for stealing the letters but was later pardoned. It is not clear whether the Vatican would be prepared to ask for the authors’ extradition from Italy if they were convicted. The Vatican, though set in Rome, functions as an autonomous state.
In the new indictment, the Vatican claims Balda, Chaouqui and Maio created “an organized criminal association” aiming at “divulging information and documents concerning the fundamental interests of the Holy See and the State.”
Chaouqui has blamed Balda for the leaks and did not address him in court Tuesday. Balda appeared protective toward a nervous-looking Maio, at one point placing his hand on his knee to calm him.
Speaking to reporters during the trial, Balda said he was being treated well by his custodians at the Vatican jail and felt “protected.”
The defendants have been compelled to appoint lawyers who are registered at the Vatican, prompting Nuzzi and Balda to ask if they could appoint lawyers of their choosing who were not registered. Nuzzi later said the request had been turned down.
Giulia Bongiorno, a lawyer representing Chaouqui, said she was not allowed to attend the trial.
“This is extremely serious,” she said. “In another trial a few months ago, I was allowed to work at the Vatican even though I am not on their list. What is the difference now?
“I am thinking of taking this to the European Court of Justice,” she added.
Nuzzi said he had only seen the 10-page prosecution case on Tuesday morning. “Italian justice is slow, but Vatican justice is a bit too fast,” he said.
The trial will resume Monday with testimony from the defendants.
Kington is a special correspondent.