Golden passport trial delayed until next year

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Four accused of selling Cypriot passports to dubious investors for cash were called to plead the five charges against them before the Nicosia criminal court on Wednesday, with the process for three delayed.

Lawyer Andreas Pittadjis denied the charges, while the hearing for the other three key players allegedly involved in the now defunct ‘golden passport’ scheme was adjourned until 11 January.

Pittadjis’ trial is scheduled for March 8-9 next year.

The other three defendants, former House speaker Demetris Syllouris, ex-AKEL MP and businessman Christakis Giovani, senior manager of the Giovani Group Antonis Antoniou, were given time until January to answer the charges.

The four men face five charges, including conspiracy to subvert the Republic and bribing a public official.

Attorney General George Savvides ordered the prosecution following an Al Jazeera exposé and after assessing the findings of the public enquiry.

In August 2020, broadcaster Al Jazeera claimed high-ranking officials were ready to help a Chinese investor with a criminal past obtain a Cypriot passport through investment.

Syllouris and Giovani were secretly filmed trying to facilitate a passport for the fugitive investor.

Prominent Famagusta lawyer Pittadjis also featured in the video and others linked to Giovani’s property development company.

On Wednesday, only Pittadjis, representing himself, answered the charges.

“I am not seeking acquittal but vindication.

“In the temple of justice, let us all be heard,” Pittadjis said as he denied the charges against him.

Lawyers representing the other three defendants raised pretrial objections.

Syllouris is represented by Chris Triantafyllides and a team of defence lawyers, while lawyer George Papaioannou represents Giovanis and Antoniou.

Antoniou did not appear before the court as he is ill with covid.

Triantafyllides argued that there was an abuse of process at the start of the proceedings, claiming a conflict of interest by the Attorney General and his deputy Savvas Angelides.

He argued that three charges relate to two passports issued to foreign nationals and approved by the cabinet in 2019, highlighting that both Savvides and Angelides were ministers at the time.

Fictitious

He also claimed the other two charges “relate to the involvement of a foreigner who is a fictional person”.

The latter referred to the fictitious Chinese criminal Al Jazeera journalists who had asked the defendants to help acquire a Cypriot passport.

The passport scheme was scrapped in a hurry in November 2020 following the damaging fallout from the Al Jazeera report.

Following the allegations, the government commissioned former judge Myron Nicolatos to conduct an enquiry.

It found that the government broke the law countless times to grant citizenship to over 6,700 people from 2007 to 2020.

The damning report said that over half (53%) of the 6,779 passports granted were done so illegally, encouraged by a due diligence vacuum or insufficient background checks.

Cyprus’ passport scheme generated over €8 bln during its lifespan.

Nicosia began offering citizenship in exchange for substantial investment as early as 2007; the scheme was stepped up following the 2013 economic crisis.

It also said that politicians and institutions were accountable, while certain applicants and service providers may be criminally culpable.

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

Under the scheme, the government granted a passport for an investment of €2.5 mln.