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Cyprus embroiled in ‘sale’ of Derby County to criminals

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Cyprus is linked to a fictitious shady investor seeking to buy one of England’s oldest football clubs Derby County FC, to use as a vehicle for money laundering.

Just when Cyprus started to distance itself from the golden passports scandal, Al Jazeera’s latest report on ‘The men who sell football’ has refreshed memories of how it paved the path to the EU for alleged criminals.

According to the network’s investigation unit, middlemen employ Cyprus to give false identities to ‘investors’ looking to hide corrupt money behind opaque offshore trusts; submit fraudulent due diligence reports, all through English football.

Posing as representatives of a Chinese criminal with convictions for bribery and money laundering, dubbed Mr X., Al Jazeera’s undercover reporters reach the brink of striking a deal to buy Derby County.

The network’s undercover operatives had a series of covertly filmed meetings with Christopher Samuelson, an offshore trust expert and football dealmaker described as “the ultimate man in the shadows”.

Not fazed by news of the dubious investor’s past, Samuelson lays out a roadmap for Mr X to use offshore trusts to hide the criminal investor’s money.

However, one of the obstacles was Mr X.’s dodgy past, having been sentenced in absentia to seven years imprisonment and smuggled his money out of China through Macau casinos.

That’s when Samuelson suggests that Mr X. could be given a whole new identity through acquiring an EU passport from Cyprus.

The financier introduces the reporters to his associate called Keith Hunter – a private investigator and former Scotland Yard detective.

“We’ve done this many, many times for others who, I can assure you, are in a worse position than your boss,” Hunter is caught saying.

Hunter introduces Al Jazeera’s undercover operatives to contacts in Cyprus, Tony, and Chris.

Tony Kay is a real estate agent for the ‘Sold on Cyprus’ property agency. Chris is Christakis Giovani MP for opposition party AKEL, one of the country’s largest real estate developers.

Antonis Antoniou, the Executive Director of the Giovani Group, lawyer Andreas Pitadjis and Demetris Syllouris, former House Speaker, were mentioned in ‘The Men who sell football’ as members of a broader network of enablers.

The middlemen had obtained, as they themselves claimed, Cypriot passports for people in a more difficult situation than the operatives fictitious boss Mr X.

One of the middlemen claimed that a Cypriot Minister had personally flown to London to accommodate a prospective Russian investor’s citizenship case.

As Hunter said, the case was closed without the investor, who could not travel as he was on Europol’s stop list, ever stepping foot in Cyprus.

The latest revelations follow a series of disclosures around Cyprus’ tarnished passports-for-cash scheme that sought to attract investors.

Last year the broadcaster aired a documentary, dubbed ‘Cyprus Papers’, showing reporters pretending to represent a Chinese businessman seeking a Cypriot passport despite having a criminal record and being helped by influential officials.

Officials caught on film were MP Christakis Giovani and Demetris Syllouris, the House Speaker.

Both resigned from their posts soon after the storey broke but have denied any wrongdoing.

Following the latest revelations, the Giovani Group on Tuesday refuted that they had any connections to English football or that any group client had connections to any UK club.

The Giovani Group statement said its executives were “unjustly targeted” by Al Jazeera for reasons they could not comprehend.

The group’s “participation in the Cyprus Citizenship Scheme was negligible as they were involved as a service provider in just one application and sold a small number of properties to investors”.

Earlier on Monday, Attorney-General George Savvides told reporters hours ahead of the Al Jazeera documentary that the police, under guidance from the legal services, will act “methodically and carefully” with any new information that comes to light.

Nicosia has yet to comment on reports that a minister had intervened in the case of the Russian investor who allegedly had a Cypriot minister rush to London to handle his case personally.

Middlemen also claimed the minister involved had told them that in the case of Mr X., an investment of around €10 mln would be required.

The amount set for investors to be eligible for a Cypriot passport was €2.5 mln.

Al Jazeera’s gotcha video forced Nicosia, already under pressure from EU bodies, to scrap the ‘golden passports’ scheme in November.

An Inquiry Committee probe into the issuing of passports under the citizenship for investment scheme running from 2007 to November 2020, found the Cabinet had bent the rules in a large number of cases.

According to the report’s findings, from a total of 6,779 passports, 53.24% (family members and officials holding managerial positions, namely 3,609 persons) were granted citizenship unlawfully.