Changing its tune, the Cypriot government said it would yank citizenships and European Union passports given 26 rich foreigners who bought them with investments under a confidential program after a media report that Cambodians tied to Prime Minister Hun Sen had benefited.
It wasn’t reported who those who will lose their citizenships were or if they would get their money back as the government of President Nicos Anastasiades had steadfastly defended its Golden Visa program that critics said wasn’t being vetted properly for criminals, money laundering or other wrongdoing.
Reuters exclusively reported last month a list of Cambodian beneficiaries, including its police chief and finance minister but no names were given as even the revocations were under a cloud of secrecy, with the news agency reporting it was a highly unusual move.
“The Council of Ministers today affirmed the will of the government for strict adherence to the terms and conditions of the Cyprus investment program,” Cypriot Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides told reporters after a four-hour cabinet meeting.
Petrides did not disclose nationalities or identities of those affected, but said it “also concerned those” whose names were mentioned in media reports, the news agency said with Cypriot sources not named saying the group included nine Russians, eight Cambodians, five Chinese nationals, two Kenyans, one Malaysian and one Iranian.
They involved nine investment projects in which groups of foreign investors in partnership can benefit from the scheme while even those with Cypriot heritage in the Diaspora have to wait as the program is aimed at wealthy foreigners, including those a rival politician said couldn’t find the country on a map but were given citizenship.
Cyprus has had a citizenship for investment plan in place since 2013, under which a minimum 2 million-euro ($2.2 million) investment can buy a passport and visa-free travel throughout the EU but has been widely criticized for being too lenient.
Advertising the scheme is now banned, but at least one law office used to distribute pamphlets resembling passports to visitors at the island’s main airport with authorities adding that the program has been modified several times and was overhauled in February 2019 with five different due-diligence layers, compared with one in 2013.
In the five years from the beginning of the citizenship scheme to 2018, the Cypriot government approved 1,864 citizenship applications. Including family members, the number was more than 3,200, and is close to 4,000 today.
“If there were nine investment cases, concerning 26 people, among 4,000 applications, it is logical that some would be problematic when controls weren’t strict,” Petrides said. “There were mistakes – it was a mistake not to have criteria, for instance, for high-risk persons,” after the government had said there were no problems and everyone was checked.
The Reuters investigation showed that influential police, business and political associates of Prime Minister Hun Sen had overseas assets worth tens of millions of dollars although he had previously denied opposition allegations members of his inner circle had other passports and were prospering overseas while some 70 percent of Cambodians live on $3 a day, according to the Asian Development Bank.
Petrides, whose ministry signs off on passports, said the individuals concerned had the right to appeal.