NICOSIA -- Cyprus’ former Parliament Speaker Demetris Syllouris, caught on video allegedly promising to help get a Golden Visa residency permit for a man who had a criminal record, has refused to testify in a probe into the affair.
Golden Visas had been sold to rich foreigners and also provided a European Union passport but the scheme ended in disgrace in November, 2020 and a subsequent probe nearly half were given improperly.
Syllouris resigned a month before that after the news site Al Jazeera secretly filmed him talking to an undercover reporter posing as someone who wanted a Golden Visa despite a shady past, that had been made up.
Syllouris, who was behind only President Nicos Anastasiades - whose family’s law firm brokered visa sales - was shown along with another lawmaker, and a local lawyer, talking to someone they thought was a Chinese investor.
They said were unfairly entrapped and claimed it was they trying to out the alleged investor and had reported the entreaty to the police without explaining why they had offered to help him.
Syllouris said what he said wasn’t really what he meant and that his comments were taken out of context although filmed word for word. He cited a constitutional right not to testify to a state-appointed board of inquiry led by a former chief justice, said the news agency Reuters.
"Given that no offence was committed on my part, I am forced to take this position to protect my legal rights," Syllouris said, calling the secret filming of him illegal.
In an interim report, the board said that 51.81 percent of the visas weren’t legal after Anastasiades had adamantly defended the scheme and said other countries giving them were just as bad or worse.
Most of the visas went to rich Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese and Cambodians while even Cypriots of the Diaspora had to go through hoops to get residency permits despite their heritage and ties to the island country.
"Our interim report gives statistical data concerning illegal naturalizations - those which, in the view of the committee, were issued by exceeding the boundaries of the law, committee Chairman Myron Nicolatos told reporters.
He said some others were within the proper legal framework but did not meet some legal criteria which applied at the time while in "tens" of cases, the commission recommended rescinding citizenship, no report if they were.
His report has been passed to the Attorney-General's office and not been made public as the government is still keeping a lid on the findings while fighting a reputation of Cyprus being a haven for hiding dirty money.
"The interim report notes possible criminal, disciplinary or administrative responsibilities which will be investigated by the relevant authorities," said Nicolatos, who was President of the Supreme Court until he retired in 2020.
The European Commission launched infringement procedures against Cyprus for selling the visas to people with no links to the island otherwise although other countries are doing the same, including Greece.
Investigators probed 2,478 passports issued from 2007 to 2016, and an additional 417, deemed high-risk, until 2020, said Reuters which had also unveiled other problems in the scheme previously.