Cyprus has announced it will abolish a controversial passport scheme following an investigation by Al Jazeera that revealed how high-ranking politicians were willing to issue passports to convicted criminals.
The interior and finance ministries said in a statement
posted in Greek on Twitter that the citizenship through investment program in its current form will be abolished from November 1.
“The proposal was based on the long-standing weaknesses but also on the abusive exploitation of the provisions of the program,” Tuesday’s statement said.
In addition, Cypriot Attorney-General George Savvidis said an investigation into possible criminal offenses would be launched.
“What has been published in the last few hours by the Al Jazeera news network is causing outrage, anger, and concern among the people,” his statement read.
On Monday, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit released The Cyprus Papers Undercover
, which showed the willingness of parliament speaker, Demetris Syllouris, and member of parliament, Christakis Giovanis (also known as Giovani in Cyprus), to aid and abet convicted criminals to obtain a passport through the Citizenship Investment Programme (CIP).
Weeks earlier, Al Jazeera released The Cyprus Papers
, a cache of almost 1,400 documents showing Cyprus had granted passports to criminals convicted in their home countries and people wanted by Interpol in the previous years.
Following Tuesday’s announcement by The Cypriot government, Syllouris said he would abstain from duties from October 19 until government investigations had been completed.
Under the scheme, anyone who could afford to invest at least $2.5m in the Cypriot economy, usually through real estate, was able to obtain a Cypriot passport.
The program has been regularly criticized by the European Union and anti-corruption NGOs, which have claimed the scheme increases the risk of money laundering through Europe’s financial institutions.
Posing as Billy Lee and Angie, Al Jazeera’s reporters went undercover, pretending to represent a Chinese businessman interested in acquiring a Cypriot passport.
The mystery businessman had been convicted for money laundering, which should have disqualified him as an applicant under Cyprus’ rules.
However, time and again they were told that the sentence would not be a problem as long as enough money was invested – the implication being that the more their client invested above the $2.5m threshold, the easier he would find it to avoid restrictions.
MP Christakis Giovani, also one of the island’s most prominent real estate developers told the undercover reporters he would ensure the deal was done.
“It’s not easy. But I can promise, we shall do the best. And I believe we have the experience,” Giovani said.
Parliamentary speaker Demetris Syllouris went even further, saying: “You can tell him that he will have, without mentioning my name or anybody else’s, full support from Cyprus. At any level – political, economic, social, everything – ok.”
These sentiments were echoed by several others, including a lawyer who said that it would even be possible to change the name on the passport, effectively changing the identity of the applicant.
Those featured in the investigation, including Syllouris and Christakis, have all denied wrongdoing and referred to a report filed with Cyprus’s anti-money laundering unit.
They also said their dealings with our undercover journalists were intended to gather information to support a report to the authorities without “tipping them off”.