Cyprus Ends 'Golden Passport' Program Amid Corruption Accusations

October 15, 2020 

The small Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus has given citizenship and passports to more than 3,000 foreigners who agreed to invest at least $2 million in the country -- a "golden passport" that allowed the holders to travel visa-free throughout the European Union.

But this week Cyprus announced that it is ending the initiative after an undercover investigation by journalists appeared to show two lawmakers helping to arrange a passport for a fictitious businessman, despite being told he had a criminal record.

One of those lawmakers, Demetris Syllouris, the president of Parliament and the country's second most powerful official, resigned on Thursday. The other, Christakis Giovanis, resigned on Tuesday, and both men have denied any wrongdoing.

Cyprus was only one of several European countries that turned to offering what became widely known as "golden passports" to attract investments after their economies were crippled in the global economic downturn that began in 2008. In the last seven years, Cyprus has raised over 6 billion euros through the program -- about $7 billion dollars.

But some of the passport programs are now seen as gateways for crime and corruption, and a threat to the integrity of the European Union, since such passports grant the right to travel to the union's 27 member countries. The European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, has said that programs in Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta are at particular risk for corruption.

The Commission is considering possible legal action against Cyprus over the matter, said Christian Wigand, a Commission spokesman.

He said that European officials had "watched in disbelief" as the undercover investigation, produced by Al Jazeera and made public on Monday, purported to show high-level Cypriot officials willing to trade European citizenship for financial gain.

"European values are not for sale," said Mr. Wigand, repeating a statement made by the Commission's president, Ursula von der Leyen, in her State of the Union address last month.

The passport program bars anyone with a criminal record from applying. But Mr. Syllouris and Mr. Giovanis, were filmed saying that they would help obtain a passport for a wealthy Chinese businessman -- who, they were told, had fled China after being sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of bribery and money laundering.

"If there is a problem, we are not going to stop," Mr. Syllouris said in the footage aired by Al Jazeera. "You will have full support from Cyprus."

Another associate is shown in the video saying it was possible to use a fake name on the passport.

Cyprus's attorney general, George Savvidis, said the authorities would conduct an investigation to determine whether any criminal acts were involved.

Both lawmakers rejected the allegations of corruption, saying that they had actually been gathering evidence to relay to the authorities that fight money laundering. Mr. Giovanis also said that the situation was staged, and that he was entrapped into making the statements. Al Jazeera reporters posed as associates of the businessman.

ImageDemetris Syllouris, the president of Cyprus's Parliament, in Spain in 2018. Footage from Al Jazeera showed him and another lawmaker saying they would help obtain a passport for a fictitious businessman, despite being told that he had a criminal record.
Demetris Syllouris, the president of Cyprus's Parliament, in Spain in 2018. Footage from Al Jazeera showed him and another lawmaker saying they would help obtain a passport for a fictitious businessman, despite being told that he had a criminal record.Credit...Luca Piergiovanni/EPA

Cyprus' ministry of finance said the country had granted more than 3,000 visas to applicants who invested two million Euros -- or about $2.34 million dollars. The government said in a Twitter post on Tuesday that it will end the program on Nov. 1, citing ongoing weaknesses and exploitation of the program.

This is not the first report by Al Jazeera about the passport initiative. In August, leaked documents obtained by its journalists indicated that at least 60 people approved for Cypriot citizenship should have been rejected under tighter rules that were introduced in 2019 but then eased this year.

In September, the government announced that it was reviewing foreigners who received citizenship through the program. Many of the passports have gone to Russian, Ukrainian and Chinese investors.

Cyprus also revoked the passports of 26 people last year after Reuters reported that new citizens under the program included high-ranking Cambodian officials and close associates of the Cambodia's prime minister, Hun Sen. The leader has denied accusations that members of his inner circle have second passports that allow them to live overseas.

Activists who work to fight corruption welcomed the end of Cyprus's program. They said the European Union needed to regulate such initiatives more strictly, if not repeal them entirely. The Cypriot government has not ruled out making changes and reinstating the program.

Maira Martini, a research and policy expert at Transparency International, said in a statement that a full analysis of passports awarded under the initiative was needed.

"The overwhelming evidence is that the country's 'golden visa' scheme serves corrupt interests, not the people of Cyprus," she said.

Latest News

October 21, 2020
Breonna Taylor Grand Juror Says Homicide Charges Were Not Presented

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A Kentucky judge on Tuesday granted grand jurors in the Breonna Taylor case permission to speak publicly, a rare move that immediately led one juror to assert that prosecutors had not given the panel the opportunity to bring homicide charges in the case. Ms. Taylor, 26, was killed in her apartment in […]

Read More
October 21, 2020
A Democratic Super PAC Surge Helps Biden Expand His Map

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I'm Nick Corasaniti, your host on Tuesdays for our coverage of all things media and messaging. Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox every weekday. Image Until a month ago, the biggest-spending Democratic super PAC in the general election […]

Read More
October 21, 2020
U.S. Government and Tech Firms Push Back on Russia (and Trump)

Over the past two weeks, United States Cyber Command and a group of companies led by Microsoft have engaged in an aggressive campaign against a suspected Russian network that they feared could hold election systems hostage come November. Then, on Monday, the Justice Department indicted members of the same elite Russian military unit that hacked […]

Read More
October 21, 2020
Lack of Night Patrol Delayed Detection of Deadly Boat Fire, U.S. Says

The lack of a required night patrol aboard a scuba dive boat delayed the response to a fire that killed 34 people last year, the National Transportation Safety Board said on Tuesday. The delay allowed the fire to grow unnoticed and "directly led to the high number of fatalities," the board said. A lack of […]

Read More
October 21, 2020
Trump Calls on Barr to 'Act' Against Biden Before Election

President Trump on Tuesday called on William P. Barr, the attorney general, to take action before Election Day against his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., over his son's foreign work, an extraordinary attempt to pressure the government's chief law enforcement to help him politically. The president made the remark during an […]

Read More
October 21, 2020
Tiffany Trump, Richard Grenell At Trump Pride Campaign Event | NBC News NOW
Read More
crossmenuchevron-down