Al Jazeera will reveal the identities of dozens of people who acquired Cypriot citizenship who, according to the country’s own rules, in many cases should not have received its passports
With the Cyprus government saying it had reformed a program selling Golden Visas and European Union passports to wealthy foreigners, a report by the Qatari media Al Jazeera revealed that beneficiaries had included convicted fraudsters, money launderers and political figures accused of corruption from more than 70 countries.
The news site's Investigative Unit – as had the Reuters news agency earlier – said it had uncovered the sales to people not properly vetted to see if they were hiding criminal cash in Cypriot banks or laundering money for mobsters and politicians.
Al Jazeera will reveal the identities of dozens of people who acquired Cypriot citizenship who, according to the country’s own rules, in many cases should not have received its passports.
The report cited a large cache of official documents which the site said it had obtained, calling them The Cyprus Papers, a review of more than 1,400 passport applications approved by the government from 2017 to 2019.
Cyprus’ much-criticized Golden Visa offers citizenship in exchange for an investment of €2 million, including the purchase of a residence worth at least €500,000, in addition to another €150,000.
Their value is heightened by passports allowing travel, banking and working within the 28-member state bloc, with restrictions now in place with some because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
In response to questions from Al Jazeera, Cypriot Member of Parliament Eleni Mavrou said: “The way the program was implemented the last few years was obviously a procedure that allowed cases for which the Republic of Cyprus should be ashamed.”
“I believe that the new regulations will not leave room for foul play or for stepping over the boundaries that a state should respect,” she added.
Interior Minister Nicos Nouris told Al Jazeera: “No citizenship was granted in violation of the regulations in force at the given time”, although the government of President Nicos Anastasiades – who first downplayed the scandal – admitted there were serious shortcomings and visas of 26 people accused of a range of wrongdoing had been revoked.
The visa buyers
The Golden Visas have brought in more than €7 billion since it began, coming relatively close to matching a €10 billion international bailout that propped up the economy and banks in 2013.
Between 2017 and 2019, the countries with the highest number of people applying were China, Ukraine and Russia, which saw the wealthy pour money into the island country's banks and were named in a €200 billion money laundering scheme through Denmark's Danske Bank.
Among the approved applications seen by Al Jazeera was that of Ukrainian tycoon Mykola Zlochevsky, owner of the giant Burisma energy company, who was being investigated for corruption in his country when he bought the Cypriot visa.
A similar application came from Russian national Nikolay Gornovskiy, former boss of the state-owned energy giant Gazprom, who was being probed in his country for abuse of power when he got his visa, the report said.
Chinese businessman Zhang Keqiang also received a Cypriot passport, despite having spent time in prison for a fraudulent share deal, while Vietnamese businessman Pham Nhat Vu's passport was approved a month after he was charged with giving millions of dollars in bribes in a telecoms deal.
In May 2019, Cyprus introduced tougher rules on who was eligible for citizenship. The rules banned anyone under investigation, wanted, convicted or under international sanctions from buying a passport.
However, the Al Jazeera investigation found that many more would not be eligible if the law were applied properly. Among them would be the Venezuelan Leonardo Gonzalez Dellan, an ex-banker, who was sanctioned by the United States for laundering millions in illegal currency deals for the Venezuelan government.
Another person who could lose his passport is Oleg Bakhmatiuk, under investigation in Ukraine for embezzlement and money laundering relating to his giant agricultural firm, although he has described the charges as “a complete fabrication and politically motivated.”
Another is Chinese national Li Jiadong, who was sanctioned by the US for laundering $100 million in cryptocurrency related to North Korean hackers. The report named Maleksabet Ebrahimi and his son Mehdi, who are both on Interpol's most-wanted list for money laundering and fraud in Iran and are facing similar charges in Canada.