Cyprus has announced the suspension of a “golden passport” scheme to sell citizenship to wealthy investors following a sting by investigative journalists.
Al Jazeera’s investigative unit filmed high-ranking Cypriot politicians, including the parliamentary speaker Demetris Syllouris, promising to support the sale of a Cypriot passport to representatives of a fictitious Chinese businessman with a money-laundering conviction.
The citizenship-through-investment scheme, which has been in operation in its current form since 2013, allowed foreign individuals to invest €2.5m (£2.26m) in the country in exchange for citizenship, raising a reported €7bn to sustain the country’s sclerotic economy.
But it has for years been the target of ferocious criticism by anti-corruption campaigners, who have repeatedly warned that such schemes can be used by criminal individuals and organisations to launder large sums of corrupt funds into property.
The Twitter account of the presidency of Cyprus announced on Tuesday that the scheme in its current form would be abolished, citing abuse of the scheme’s provisions as well as historic weaknesses.
Undercover operatives from Al Jazeera posed as representatives of an invented Chinese businessman convicted of money-laundering. Under the rules of the scheme, such a conviction should have disqualified the fake businessman from applying.
However the reporters were repeatedly told that the rule could simply be circumvented or ignored if sufficient cash were invested.
One registered service provider claimed to have previously secured a Cypriot golden passport for an individual who had been jailed for two years for corruption, and suggested that the fake businessman alter his name to apply under a new identity.
“Of course we can change his name,” the service provider was reported to have said. “This is Cyprus.”
Syllouris, the president of the house of representatives, was filmed 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?”
Both men later claimed they had been playing along with the Al Jazeera reporters in order to elicit information that they would later report to the authorities.
On Tuesday Syllouris said he would withdraw from carrying out his duties pending an investigation by the government, adding that he “would like to publicly apologise for this unpleasant image conveyed to the Cypriot public” and suggesting the report was “staged and fragmented”.
On Monday a spokesperson for the European commission said the report had been watched “with disbelief” in Brussels and that the organisation was considering infringement proceedings.
Brussels representatives have regularly expressed disquiet about cash for passport schemes in recent years, both over the risk of their abuse by money launderers and because citizenship from one EU member state grants access to all 27 others.
“President (Ursula) von der Leyen was clear when saying European values are not for sale,” said the spokesperson.
Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch member of the European parliament, told Al Jazeera the undercover footage “fully exposes the citizenship by investment schemes for what they really are: a cover operation for bringing criminals and criminal money into the EU”.
In 2017 the Guardian reported on leaked files from the Cypriot golden passport scheme revealing that billionaire Russian oligarchs and Ukrainian businessmen accused of corruption were among those to whom Cyprus had sold citizenship.
Also in the files was Rami Makhlouf, the businessman and cousin of ther Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, described in leaked US diplomatic cables as a “poster-boy for corruption”. Makhlouf’s Cypriot citizenship was later revoked following the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.
Last November, Cyprus was forced to announce that 26 individuals would have their golden passports rescinded after an investigation by Reuters discovered that several Cambodian politicians, including the chief of police and finance minister, had used the scheme.
Other countries to run controversial “golden visa” or “golden passport” schemes include the UK, Portugal and Malta.
A separate leak to the Guardian identified a Brazilian tycoon convicted of corruption as part of the Lava Jato scandal as one of the investors to have applied for a golden visa from Portugal. In 2018 the British government announced the UK’s “tier 1 investor” visa scheme would be suspended over corruption concerns, only for the suspension to be dropped less than a week later.