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Politics

Cyprus Starts Secret Prosecutions Over Golden Visa Scheme Scandal

NICOSIA — Without naming the suspects, Cyprus' top prosecutor asked police to investigate possible criminal charges over the country's disbanded Golden Visa scheme that sold residency permits and European Union passports to rich foreigners who weren't eligible nor vetted for money laundering or other possible wrongdoing.

The news site Al Jazeera, which had run a sting operation that ensnared the former second-in-command in the government of President Nicos Anastasiades – whose family's law firm brokered the sale of the visas – said five people and four legal entities are under the microsope.

“The first criminal case concerning the naturalisation of foreign investors and business people was registered at Larnaca district court,” a statement from the prosecutor's office said, the site reported.

The accused are facing 37 charges based on the findings of an independent panel named by the government but said because of “sensitive details,” that no one would be named, keeping the program shrouded in secrecy as it was when operating.

Despite being public business, the government had refused to provide the names of people buying the permits and passports even in the face of media reports identifying many of them, including a Malaysian fugitive from justice. 

After he repeatedly defended it, Anastasiades ended the program in November, 2020 when the European Union also said it was worried the scheme was a conduit for criminals to hide their cash and buy into the bloc.

That came after Al Jazeera television aired a documentary showing reporters posing as fixers for a Chinese businessman seeking a Cypriot passport despite claiming to have a criminal record, as he was assured it wasn't a problem.

Parliament speaker Demetris Syllouris and an opposition politician were secretly filmed allegedly trying to broker a passport for the fugitive investor and later resigned while saying they were innocent and the video taken out of context.

But the news site had reported that dozens of others who applied were under criminal investigation, international sanctions or even serving prison sentences and the panel found half the passports were likely unlawful and other reports that even Anastasiades was pressured.

Cyprus began the program in 2013 when he was elected and the economy and banking system nearly collapsed over bad loans to Greek businesses which wouldn't pay and big holdings in Greek bonds devalued 74 percent.

Anastasiades said he would go after bankers and not let people's accounts be confiscated but broke both promises, no bankers prosecuted and banks allowed to seize 54.5 percent of accounts over 100,000 euros ($121,459,) nearly wiping out many small investors.

Rich foreigners who critics said couldn't find Cyprus on a map were given the visas – including to family members not eligible, reports said – if they ponied up $3 million in investments, no reports of where the money went.

About 51 percent of 6,779 passports issued from 2007-2020 went to recipients who should not have qualified, said the panel, reporting that authorities approved what was on their desks without checking for any criminal activity.

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