By Elias Hazou
Attorney-general Costas Clerides has instructed police to probe possible criminal offences in connection with the granting of student visas to Bangladeshi nationals.
“Having reviewed the information put before him pertaining to a complaint on the procedures relating to the entry into the Republic of a large number of foreign students from Bangladesh, the Attorney-general deems that a police investigation into possible criminal offences is warranted,” read a statement from the AG’s office.
The AG has instructed the police chief to commence such an investigation, it added.
But as the open-ended statement did not specify the focus of the police probe, it briefly fuelled speculation that it might encompass possible wrongdoing by the interior ministry and its head, Socratis Hasikos.
It took a second statement by the AG’s office later in the day to clarify that Hasikos was off the hook.
The follow-up statement explained that the interior ministry or the procedures it followed are not the subject of the investigation.
“Police investigations will be limited to the matter of potential commission of offences relating to forgery of documents used by certain persons, and does not concern the administrative procedure followed by state organs in relation to the entry [into Cyprus] and enrolment into educational institutions of the students in question.”
Immediately following the release of the first statement, interior minister Hasikos wrote to the AG, seeking clarifications.
In his letter to the AG, Hasikos inquired as to whether the probe related to his person as well. If it did, he wrote, he would ask the president to temporarily relieve him of his duties until the completion of the investigation.
In his response, Clerides praised Hasikos on the latter’s “political sensitivity”, explaining that the probe “does not concern the procedure followed by your ministry or its organs…”
The correspondence between the AG and Hasikos was provided to the media by the interior ministry.
The affair came to light last week, when it emerged that in late September, Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides wrote to the AG asking him to look into “possible criminal offences” by the interior ministry regarding the approval of visas to students from non-EU countries based on forged documentation.
The visas in question were issued this year.
From information he received from the foreign ministry, Michaelides said, the Cypriot Honorary Consulate in Dhaka, Bangladesh had reason to believe that the bank statements provided by several visa applicants were dodgy.
In addition, health certificates were in some cases signed off by the same Bangladeshi doctor, but bore different signatures; in other cases the dates were off.
Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos conceded that, on his initiative, a number of potentially suspect visa applications were approved.
He argued that once the matter was brought to his ministry’s attention, he had asked both the migration department and the police to affirm in writing whether the documentation was in fact fake. Neither migration nor the police were ready to put this in writing, as they could not be absolutely certain the documents were forged – although the foreign ministry was.
Hasikos claims that only 50 student visas were problematic, not all 800 as initially implied by media.
The minister said he decided to have the visas approved, but took additional precautions, such as requiring the applicants (students) in question to pay their college fees upon arrival in Cyprus, as well as submit to a medical here within 48 hours.
The affair prompted a public spat between Hasikos and Michaelides, with the former asking the AG to clarify the powers and role of the Auditor-general.
Hasikos contends the current Auditor-general has overstepped his remit by interfering with the executive branch of government.
The situation created a conflict between two senior figures – one a member of the administration, the other an independent official – with the government avoiding taking a position.
By default, the hot potato was dropped on the AG.
The AG’s statement on Monday addressed this issue as well, but in a tangential way.
Clerides’ first statement simply said that “the powers and jurisdictions of the Auditor-general are expressly set out in Article 116 of the Constitution and need no other interpretation.”
Article 116 is not particularly illuminating in this regard. It states: “The Auditor-General…shall, on behalf of the Republic, control all disbursements and receipts and audit and inspect all accounts of moneys and other assets administered, and of liabilities incurred, by or under the authority of the Republic and for this purpose he shall have the right of access to all books, records and returns relating to such accounts and to places where such assets are kept.”
Clerides did add, however, that the Auditor-general has the power – and the duty – to report to the AG any information coming to his attention which suggests possible criminal offences.
Evidently this latter reference was intended to clear up that the Auditor-general is entitled to report any suspicion of wrongdoing to the proper authorities.
By Elias Hazou