The small Mediterranean island state of Cyprus has granted citizenship and passports to more than 3,000 foreigners who have agreed to invest at least 2 million US dollars in the country – a “golden passport” that allows holders to travel across the European Union without a visa .
But this week Cyprus announced that it was ending the initiative after an undercover journalist investigation revealed two lawmakers were helping organize a passport for a fictitious businessman despite being told he had a criminal record.
One of those lawmakers, Demetris Syllouris, president of parliament and the country’s second most powerful civil servant, resigned on Thursday. The other, Christakis Giovanis, resigned on Tuesday and both men have denied any wrongdoing.
Cyprus was just one of several European countries that chose to offer so-called “golden passports” to attract investment after their economies were crippled by the global economic downturn that began in 2008. In the past seven years, Cyprus has raised more than 6 billion euros through the program – approximately 7 billion dollars.
However, some of the passport programs are now seen as gateways to crime and corruption and a threat to the integrity of the European Union as such passports give the right to travel to the 27 member countries of the Union. The European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, has stated that programs in Bulgaria, Cyprus and Malta are at particular risk of corruption.
The commission is considering possible legal action against Cyprus on the matter, said Christian Wigand, a commission spokesman.
He said European officials “looked on in disbelief”, as the undercover investigation submitted by Al Jazeera and published on Monday allegedly reveals senior Cypriot officials willing to trade European citizenship for financial gain.
“European values are not for sale,” said Wigand, repeating a statement made by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her State of the Union address last month.
The passport program prohibits people with a criminal record from applying. But Mr Syllouris and Mr Giovanis were filmed and said they were helping to get a passport for a wealthy Chinese businessman – who they were told had fled China after being sentenced to seven years in prison for bribery and money laundering .
“If there is a problem we won’t stop,” said Syllouris in the footage broadcast by Al Jazeera. “You will have full support from Cyprus.”
Another employee is shown in the video who said it was possible to use a fake name on the passport.
Cypriot attorney general George Savvidis said the authorities were conducting an investigation to see if the act was criminal.
Both lawmakers rejected the corruption allegations, saying they actually collected evidence to forward to the authorities fighting money laundering. Mr Giovanis also said that the situation was staged and that he was involved in making the statements. Al Jazeera reporters posed as employees of the businessman.
The Cypriot Treasury said the country had issued more than 3,000 visas – or about $ 2.34 million – to applicants who had invested two million euros. The government said in a Twitter post on Tuesday that it would end the program on November 1, citing the program’s ongoing weaknesses and exploitation.
This is not Al Jazeera’s first report on the passport initiative. In August, leaked documents from its journalists indicated that at least 60 people eligible for Cypriot citizenship should be turned down under stricter rules introduced in 2019 and then relaxed this year.
In September the government announced that it was screening foreign nationals granted citizenship under the program. Many of the passports went to Russian, Ukrainian, and Chinese investors.
Cyprus also revoked the passports of 26 people last year after Reuters reported that the new citizens included senior Cambodian officials and close associates of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. The chairman has denied allegations that members of his inner circle rank second on passports that allow them to live abroad.
Anti-corruption activists welcomed the end of the Cyprus program. You said the European Union should regulate such initiatives more strictly, if not abolish them entirely. The Cypriot government has not ruled out making changes and restarting the program.
Maíra Martini, a research and policy expert at Transparency International, said in a statement that a full analysis of passports issued under the initiative was needed.
“The overwhelming evidence is that the country’s ‘golden visa’ system serves corrupt interests, not the people of Cyprus,” she said.