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Society

Cyprus Denies Selling Golden Visas, Passports to Foreign Criminals

August 24, 2020

NICOSIA – Hit with an Al Jazeera report it has sold Golden Visas that come with European Union passports to wealthy foreigners with criminal and corrupt records, Cyprus' government said they were all legitimate at the time.

The report by the news site's Investigative Unit said beneficiaries have included convicted fraudsters, money launderers and political figures accused of corruption from more than 70 countries.

It added to what the Reuters news agency said earlier, Al Jazeera claiming to have  uncovered the sales of people not properly vetted to see if they are hiding criminal cash in Cypriot banks or laundering money for mobsters and politicians.

The report cited a large cache of official documents the site said it had obtained, calling them The Cyprus Papers, a review of more than 1,400 passport applications approved by the government from 2017-19.

Cyprus’ much-criticized Golden Visa offers citizenship in exchange for an investment of 2 million euros ($2.36 million,) including the purchase of a residence worth at least 500,000 euros ($589,749.50, in addition to another 150,000 euros ($176,924.85.)

Their value is heightened by coming with passports allowing travel, banking and working within the 28-member state bloc, with restrictions now in place with some because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The site named names and said it would reveal the identities of dozens of people “who acquired Cypriot citizenship who, according to the country's own rules, in many cases should not have received a passport.”

The Cypriot Parliament in July beefed up the eligibility criteria for the scheme which has brought in more than 7 billion euros ($8.26 billion,) since it began, coming relatively close to matching a 10-billion euro ($11.79 billion) international bailout that propped up the economy and banks in 2013.

The program has attracted more than 7,000 investors because a passport from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus automatically grants its holder citizenship to the entire 27-member EU, allowing free travel, banking and work in the bloc.

Cyprus’ Interior Ministry said 12 foreigners named in the report received citizenship under the investment program only after being approved by Cypriot and foreign agencies tasked with vetting such applications.

The report claimed that the 12 — including four Russians, two people each from Ukraine, China and Iran, and one each from Venezuela and Vietnam — secured Cypriot passports after paying at least 2 million euros ($2.36 million) in investments despite being under investigation for an assortment of crimes such as corruption and fraud, the ministry saying it would review the visas.

Under the latest changes, new anti-money laundering rules will be used to bolster how prospective investors are vetted and a clause will make it easier for the government to yank visas as it did earlier to 26 people after the Reuters report showed holes in the program that has been criticized by the EU.

Investors will still need to sink 2 million euros ($2.28 million) into the Cypriot economy, including buying a home, buying up stock in Cypriot companies or contributing to housing and entrepreneurship programs. The number of such citizenships is capped at 700 a year for now.

In 2019, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades acknowledged that “errors” may have been made in granting such “Golden Passports” after he repeatedly denied there were any problems and said other countries had worse records.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)

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