NOCOSIA - Cyprus has no plans to stop selling Golden Visas to rich foreigners who invest in the country despite the government's admission there were laws that let them acquire residency permits and European Union passports without being property vetted – leading to 26 being removed..
Cypriot Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides said it could have allowed high-risk people to benefit after the government had said there weren't any serious problems and President Nicos Anastasiades continued to defend the scheme critics said was open to money laundering and other criminal activity, saying that other EU countries had even worse records as criticism grew that Cyprus was selling the visas to anyone who had the money to get them.
That included Malaysian financier Jho Low, who put a 5-million euro ($5.51 million) property in the resort town of Ayia Napa, although he since was implicated in a scandal at 1MDB, which US and Malaysian prosecutors said was used to siphon out hundreds of millions of dollars.
In an interview with the Greek newspaper Kathemerini, Petrides said Low – one of those whose visa, including an EU passport, was stripped – would not have been given a passport under today’s criteria despite reports it was still too lenient now.
Earlier this year the government introduced stricter eligibility criteria including for ‘”an advance exclusion” – to reject those found to have been involved in serious criminal offenses, or even reportedly, without having been found guilty.
“They may eventually be proven to be innocent, but they are considered high-risk,” Petrides said as the government scrambled to undo damage caused by a Reuters report that Cyprus was selling Golden Visas to wealthy relatives and allies of Cambodian Premier Hun Sen among others.
Cyprus' intention of tougher scrutinizing and extra safeguards came after the Low case – which involved Archbishop Chrysostomos II reportedly sending a letter to former Interior Minister Socrates Hasikos, urging him to look favourably upon Low’s application after the businessman donated 300,000 euros ($331,022) to a theological school when he visited Cyprus – showed shortcomings in the program and highlighted the role of firms as middlemen.
“Selling golden passports made sense for a government struggling to rebuild the economy,” Antonis Ellinas, a political scientist at the University of Cyprus told The Financial Times. “But the scheme has always lacked the necessary political oversight,” he added.
Cyprus has sold some 4,000 Golden Visas, bringing in about 6 billion euros ($6.61 billion,) critical cash for a country that in 2013 needed a 10 billion euro ($11.01 billion) international bailout after bad loans Cypriot banks gave to Greek businesses and holdings in devalued Greek bonds put them and the economy on the brink.
Anastasiades’ former law firm offers services to investors applying for golden passports, although officials he said he no longer has ties to the company that is benefiting and as he said he won't stop the program, complaining of unfair criticism at the same time he admitted shortfalls.
In May, the government tightened rules for granting nationality, increasing the level of due diligence and requiring applicants to have a valid visa for traveling in the EU’s free-travel zone. Advertising the passport scheme was also banned, seeing applications fall off the table.
But critics said the response is inadequate to the task of stopping suspect money and characters flowing into the EU. “This approach will probably have little respect from member states, and much tougher legal action is required to force states to end these dodgy schemes,” Tina Mlinaric of Global Witness, a non-governmental group told The Financial Times.
In September 2015, Archbishop Chrysostomos II reportedly sent a letter to former Interior Minister Socrates Hasikos, urging him to look favorably upon Low’s application after the businessman donated 300,000 euros ($331,022) to a theological school when he visited Cyprus.
Speaking to Kathimerini, the Archbishop said while errors were made in the Golden Visa program because of greed that it shouldn’t be shut down and that the mistakes were “not the end of the world,” although EU officials said it could have allowed criminal elements into the bloc.
He also said that the 300,000 euros would be returned if it was shown not to be clean and used to launder money but he said he was satisfied there was no wrongdong. “He offered a donation, we accepted, the matter is closed,” the Archbishop said without saying whether his request for Low to get the visa was a quid pro quo.
Politis reported that in addition to the 300,000-euro check given to the Archbishop for the theology school, Low had also given him a second check for 10,000 euros ($11,034) without indicating what it was used for.