Probe: Cyprus ‘unlawfully’ gave passports in investment deal

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Cyprus’ government unlawfully issued 3,500 passports to the relatives of wealthy investors under a now-defunct, multibillion euro citizenship-for-investment program, a damning interim report by an independent commission found on Tuesday.

The report, which said the government incorrectly interpreted the law, also found that nearly 770 foreigners were wrongly granted citizenship.

The program was attractive to foreign investors because a passport from European Union member Cyprus allowed free travel and residence within the 27-member bloc.

The four-member commission, headed by a former senior judge, was tasked by President Nicos Anastasiades with investigating what went wrong with the scheme. It said in its 515-page report that just over half of the 6,779 passports that successive governments issued under the program over 13 years were given to investors’ adult family members, even though there was no law in place to authorize that.

The Cypriot parliament passed legislation allowing the government to grant such citizenships to family members only a few months before the program was scrapped last year.

The EU had also taken Cyprus to task over the scheme.

That program’s cancellation came after an undercover TV report that allegedly showed the parliamentary speaker and a powerful lawmaker claiming that they could skirt the rules to issue a passport to a reporter posing as a representative for a fictitious Chinese investor who had been convicted of fraud in his country.

The program was set up in 2007 but was ramped up in 2013 following a financial crisis, to generate over 8 billion euros ($9.66 billion) for the east Mediterranean island nation.

According to the report, another erroneous legal interpretation allowed the Cabinet to issue passports to senior executives of foreign and Cypriot companies, without them having made a personal investment in Cyprus. Committee members said the executives couldn’t be considered investors because they didn’t own the companies.

The Committee also faulted the government for potentially “inadequate vetting” of investors’ applications as well as violating the “basic tenets of natural justice and good governance.”

The report said neither the presidents nor politicians holding two key cabinet posts involved in the process recused themselves from granting citizenship when they may have had a conflict of interest regarding applications handled by law firms or other companies that they were directly or indirectly connected to.

The overwhelming number of citizenships were granted under Anastasiades’ presidency.

The report also pointed to serious shortcomings in how the Interior Ministry processed applications, including the “complete lack” of a data base to properly vet applicants. It said the Finance Ministry was also at fault for “green lighting” certain applications that didn’t fulfill all the criteria, due to the size of the investment.

The report also said service providers involved in the application process used political connections to apply pressure to the finance and interior ministries — and even the president himself — to approve them.

The interim report was redacted so as not to affect ongoing legal cases against certain applicants. No date was given when the final report would be issued.