VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Five people, including two Italian reporters, went on trial in the Vatican on Tuesday, to outrage from rights groups, on charges arising from publication of books in which the Holy See was portrayed as mired in mismanagement and corruption.
At the first session, dominated by procedural issues and dubbed "Kafkaesque" by one of the defendants, journalists Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi said they had done nothing wrong and had simply fulfilled their professional duty.
"I am incredulous in finding myself here as a defendant in a country that is not mine," Fittipaldi told the court, adding that publishing news was protected by the Italian constitution as well as European conventions and universal declarations on human rights.
The trial, being heard by three non-clerical judges in the sovereign city-state, stems from publication of two books which depict a Vatican plagued by mismanagement, greed and corruption and where Pope Francis faces stiff resistance from the old guard to his reform agenda.
While the Vatican follows a 19th-century Italian criminal code that is no longer used in Italy, the fundamental approach to criminal trials is similar to the Italian legal system of magistrates and prosecutors. Unlike Italy, the Vatican does not have jury trials.
A criminal law making it illegal to leak documents was introduced in 2013 after another leaks scandal that preceded the resignation of Pope Benedict that year.
That scandal, in which Benedict's butler was arrested for stealing documents from the pope's desk and leaking them to Nuzzi, came to be known as "Vatileaks". The Italian media has dubbed the latest episodes "Vatileaks II".
The defendants risk jail sentences of up to eight years but legal experts said the two journalists were not likely to serve any time in the Vatican's small jail, which is rarely used, and would probably receive suspended sentences, if any.
A Vatican prosecutor told the court that the Holy See did not intend to muzzle freedom of the press and that the defendants were bring tried for the way the documents were leaked by the officials and obtained by the journalists.
Two of the officials indicted, Spanish Monsignor Angel Lucio Vallejo Balda, who was number two at the Vatican's Prefecture for Economic Affairs, and Italian laywoman Francesca Chaouqui, a public relations expert, were arrested earlier this month.
Balda and Chaouqui were both members of a now-defunct commission Francis set up in 2013 to study economic and administrative reforms. Vatican employee Nicola Maio, Balda's assistant, also went on trial.
In their indictment, prosecutors said Balda, Chaouqui and Maio formed "an organized criminal association" with the aim of "divulging information and documents concerning the fundamental interests of the Holy See and the State".
Nuzzi and Fittipaldi wrote books based on the leaks. Their indictment said both solicited and applied pressure, especially on Vallejo Balda, to obtain secret documents and information.
Asked at a news conference how the trial could affect Francis's image as a man of mercy, Nuzzi suggested that it was fomented by other Vatican officials bent on protecting their privileges and status.
"This trial against journalists is a trial against transparency. In it, I see no evidence of the clear message of a sweet revolution the pope espouses every day ... unfortunately, there are various personalities in the Church (and) when you talk about the privileges of a caste, the caste is not happy," Nuzzi said.
The Vatican has said "Merchants in the Temple" by Nuzzi and "Avarice" by Fittipaldi, give a "partial and tendentious" version of events and has accused the writers of trying to reap financial advantages from receiving stolen documents. The books were published earlier this month.
Both journalists complained they had been forced to accept court-appointed lawyers and had been given documents needed for their defense only days, or hours, before the trial started.
Fittipaldi told reporters that he had not met his lawyer until the trial was about to start. The court ruled that a senior Vatican judge would have to decide if outside lawyers could represent the two but that judge was out of Rome.
The next session was set for Monday.
Nuzzle told reporters during a break that the trial was "absurd and Kafkaesque" but it would not stop him from publishing more books.
The human rights watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), urged the Vatican on Monday to withdraw the charges.
"Journalists must be free to report on issues of public interests and to protect their confidential sources," the OSCE's representative on freedom of the media, Dunham Mijatovic, said.
"I call on the authorities not to proceed with the charges and protect journalists' rights in accordance with OSCE commitments," she said.
The Italian journalists' federation, Italy's foreign press Association and AIGAV, the association of reporters accredited to the Vatican, also condemned the indictment of the journalists.
"We have to stress that publishing news is precisely our job," AIGAV said, calling the trial "unacceptable".
Additional reporting by Steve Scherer and Isla Binnie; Editing by Richard Balmforth and Giles Elgood