Cyprus audit office probes ‘golden passport’ claims

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Cyprus’ Audit Office on Friday said it launched a probe into the government’s passport for investment scheme after shaming accusations it was exploited by criminals.

Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera reported that dozens of those who applied for so-called “golden passports” are under criminal investigation, international sanctions or serving prison sentences.

Cypriot Interior Minister Nicos Nouris on Wednesday slammed Al Jazeera’s series of allegation it calls the ‘Cyprus Papers’ as “propaganda” intended to damage Cyprus politically and economically.

A statement by the Audit Office said, initially, its investigation will cover citizenships granted after 21.5.2018 when changes were made to the investment programme.

It said an independent investigation was necessary due to the tarnished image of the passport scheme “that has recently deteriorated after the reports from Al Jazeera”.

“The Audit Office is an independent institution which can respond credibly to complaints and allegations against the programme, apportion responsibility and take corrective action, or preserve the prestige of the Republic,” said Friday’s statement.

Nicosia says it has checked 117 people named by Al Jazeera of dubiously receiving a Cypriot passport and found they met the criteria at the time of their application and had a clean criminal record.

Cyprus also insists that the claims related to a past era before the scheme was tightened.

The channel said it obtained the information from a substantial leak of passport data of the period 2017 to 2019 but did not reveal its source.

Nouris said the classified papers had a Cypriot parliamentary seal.

Cyprus has faced pressure from Brussels to reform its citizenship-for-investment scheme, which the European Commission has said may help organised crime gangs infiltrate the EU.

In February 2019 Nicosia updated its criteria for obtaining passports, imposing what it describes as more stringent due diligence procedures.

The leaked data showed wealthy, Kremlin-linked Russians, as well as Chinese nationals, were “prepared to pay millions of dollars for an EU passport”, Al Jazeera said.

Thirty successful applicants to the programme face criminal charges, have been convicted, or are sanctioned, according to the Al Jazeera investigation. It is unclear if or how many of these 30 individuals received passports.

Forty other successful applicants were found to hold politically sensitive roles in their homelands, making them high-risk under Cypriot and European rules, Al-Jazeera said.

“It is well known that the Republic of Cyprus has made successive changes to improve the Cyprus Investment Program, following the recent vote, of Regulations by the House of Representatives.

“The most important change is that the regulations ensure transparency, credibility and continuous control, both before submitting an application and after obtaining a Cyprus passport,” said an Interior Ministry statement on Sunday.

The Mediterranean island’s government has previously faced intense pressure over the scheme after it emerged that top Cambodian officials had obtained passports in 2016 and 2017.

Cyprus began offering citizenship in exchange for investment following the island’s 2013 economic crisis.

Under the latest rules, it grants a passport in exchange for an investment of 2.5 million euros ($3.0 million).

A ceiling has also been placed on the number of applications per year (700).

The Cypriot programme has attracted an estimated 7 billion euros in investment.