Cyprus officials implicated in plan to sell passport to criminals

Several high-ranking Cypriot officials – including politicians, lawyers and real estate developers – are implicated in a scheme that allows criminals to buy a European passport using the country’s citizenship through an investment programme, an Al Jazeera investigation has found.

Among those are parliamentary speaker Demetris Syllouris and member of parliament, Christakis Giovanis (also known in Cyprus as Giovani), who is also one of the country’s largest real estate developers.

The revelation comes two months after Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit published The Cyprus Papers, a leak of 1,400 documents showing Cyprus regularly failed to adhere to its own laws and allowed convicted criminals and fugitives to obtain its citizenship.

Following the investigation, Cyprus defended the programme, saying there had been several mistakes in recent years but the tightening of laws and applicants’ background checks were sufficient to stop criminals from obtaining a passport.

Convicted Chinese businessman

Cyprus’s citizenship through investment programme grants a Cypriot passport to anyone who invests at least $2.5m in the country, often through real estate investments.

Since 2013, when the passport programme started, the country has made more than seven billion euros ($8bn). The amount is used to keep the nation’s failing economy afloat.

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“It’s not easy. But I can promise, we shall do the best. And I believe we have the experience,” Giovani said.

Syllouris went even further, saying: “You can tell him that he will have, without mentioning my name or anybody else’s, full support from Cyprus. At any level – political, economic, social, everything – ok.”

Family applications

The citizenship through investment programme is popular with people from countries like Russia, China and Ukraine, granting them access to European markets while also offering an option to store their money offshore.

As a result, many businesses, such as the Giovani Group, a real estate developer founded by politician Giovani, cater specifically to wealthy investors.

Its executive director Antonis Antoniou, said Billy’s employer should look at investing more in Cyprus – up to 20 million euros – despite knowing he was a convicted criminal.

Although legal, the programme has been criticised regularly by the European Union and anti-corruption NGOs, saying it has facilitated the laundering of stolen assets from Russia and beyond.

Using an undercover operative called Billy, who claimed to represent a Chinese investor sentenced to seven years in prison for money laundering, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit gained access to some of the country’s highest-ranking politicians involved in the scheme.

From the start, Billy was open about the prison sentence, which would officially disqualify the non-existing applicant for the Cyprus Investment Programme (CIP).

However, Billy was told by a real estate developer all the way up to the speaker of parliament that the prison sentence would not be an issue as long as enough money was invested.

 

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