NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cyprus on Tuesday scrapped a lucrative program granting citizenship to wealthy investors amid new allegations that a top state official and a veteran lawmaker were implicated in attempts to bypass strict vetting rules and issue a passport to a fictitious investor with a supposed criminal record.
Cyprus government spokesman Kyriakos Koushos said the Cabinet accepted a recommendation by the minsters of the interior and finance to cancel altogether the “golden passport” program that has netted billions of euros over several years.
Koushos said the decision, which goes into effect Nov. 1, was based on the Cyprus Investment Program’s “long-standing weaknesses, but also the abuse” of its provisions.
He said the government would in due course look at different ways of attracting foreign investment.
The allegations surfaced in an hour-long undercover report by Al Jazeera’s investigative unit that used hidden cameras to show Parliamentary Speaker Demetris Syllouris and lawmaker Christakis Giovanis pledging “full support” to granting a passport to a fictitious Chinese investor, despite a money laundering conviction against him.
The report also showed lawyer Andreas Pittadjis, real estate agents and others outlining to a man posing as a representative for the Chinese investor different ways to skirt background checks, including a name change or granting citizenship through his wife.
Both Pittadjis and Giovanis strongly denied the allegations, saying they were fully aware that the approach was bogus and that they only played along to extract more information from the “representative” in order to file a report with Cypriot law enforcement authorities.
Giovanis on Tuesday resigned his seat in the Cypriot parliament and quit his duties as a member of the communist-rooted AKEL party.
Cypriot Attorney-General George Savvides said that he instructed police to initiate an “in-depth police investigation" to determine if any criminal acts had been committed.
European Commission spokesman Christian Wigand said the bloc's executive body is looking into launching infringement proceedings against Cyprus.
“We watched in disbelief how high-level officials were trading European citizenship for financial gains,” Wigand told reporters in Brussels. European Commission “President (Ursula) von der Leyen was clear when saying European values are not for sale.”
Wigand said the Commission had frequently raised concerns about such investor citizenship schemes and also directly with Cypriot authorities.
Outraged Cypriots took to social media to heap scorn on the officials, with many calling for Syllouris’ resignation.
In a statement on Tuesday, Syllouris said that he would step back from his duties as of next week until an investigation is completed. He apologized for the “unfortunate picture” and upheaval that the “staged and fragmented” report gave and which allowed his reputation and that of the institution of House Speaker to be sullied.
Cypriot officials had earlier accused Al Jazeera of an orchestrated smear campaign against the ethnically split island nation.
The program has attracted many foreigner investors because a Cyprus passport automatically grants its holder citizenship access to the entire 27-member European Union. Around 4,000 Cypriot passports have been issued to investors under the program, generating more than 7 billion euros ($8.25 billion).
The Cyprus government has conceded that “mistakes” were made and has beefed up eligibility criteria in recent years. The most recent changes that lawmakers approved in August include new anti-money-laundering vetting rules and making it easier to revoke the citizenship of investors involved in or convicted of a serious crime.
Despite the stricter rules, the program continued to be hounded by allegations of corruption, kickbacks and favoritism.
Cyprus’ Audit Office last month urged lawmakers to rethink legislation that empowered the government to grant citizenship to investors' family members.
Cyprus Security and Exchange Commission recommended last month that authorities revoke citizenship from seven individuals who submitted forged documents in their application.
An independent committee has been set up to probe thousands of applications that were made since 2007. The investment program had gathered pace after 2013, when a financial crisis nearly brought Cyprus to bankruptcy.