Authorities should revoke the passport issued in September 2015 to a Malaysian businessman, now wanted by authorities in his country and elsewhere, President Nicos Anastasiades said on Monday.
“Absolutely yes,” Anastasiades told a reporter asking about the case of Malaysian fugitive Jho Taek Low that broke over the weekend.
But first, he added, the necessary probe must be carried out, so that due process is followed to justify any revocations.
Asked about dodgy naturalisations granted to foreign investors, which have come to light recently, Anastasiades said that some of the cases “speak for themselves”.
“And there may well be others [requiring review] which have not come out in public.”
The president was engaging in damage control following the revelation surrounding Low, implicated in the scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which US and Malaysian prosecutors say was used to siphon out hundreds of millions of dollars.
Malaysian authorities have withdrawn his passport, issued an arrest warrant and have sought help from the United States, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, India, Myanmar, China and Hong Kong.
According to daily Politis, Low came to Cyprus in September 2015 and obtained the passport under the citizenship-by-investment scheme within days of investing in some property in Ayia Napa. He was not wanted at the time in connection with the 1MDB scandal.
It was the latest embarrassing reveal for the government, after it emerged last month that eight Cambodian elites with ties to the country’s authoritarian regime had likewise secured Cypriot passports.
In its wake, the government ordered an investigation into the Cambodian cases specifically, while at the same time announcing a wider ‘audit’ of past naturalisations.
“All those granted citizenship in breach of the [updated] stricter criteria, shall see their citizenship revoked as swiftly as possible, period,” Anastasiades commented.
But he cautioned against blowing these instances out of proportion.
“If, for example, among the some 4,000 citizenships granted, it is found that 10 or 15 may not be up to par, I don’t think that it justifies all this uproar so that – and it might be down to honest mistakes – we drag our country’s name through the mud.”
Referring to the citizenship scheme more broadly, the president added:
“Unfortunately, we are trying on our own to wreck what has been a driver for construction companies, for services offered by lawyers, accountants and other professions.
“It is through growth that unemployment has declined substantially, and in general the country is on a growth trajectory.”
Politis said the Malaysian national had looked into getting a Cyprus passport in the Spring of 2015 at a time when 1MBD was being looked at by the Malaysian attorney-general.
“On the basis of the above, it could be said that Mr Jho Low, when he requested the Republic of Cyprus passport at the end of spring 2015, was not wanted. Nor were any warrants issued against him but it was certainly a major issue in all international media because it had become well known in the meantime,” the paper said.
Under passport criteria existing at the time, Low would have had to deposit €5m in a Cypriot bank for three years and buy a permanent home worth 500,000 euros. According to the newspaper, he deposited with a Cypriot bank in June 2015, the sum of €5.9m.
Politis said the company which undertook to complete the naturalisation of the then 34-year-old businessman, applied to a well-known audit firm in Nicosia asking them to prepare the relevant applications and to submit what was required by law.
The audit firm, acting as broker handling Low’s application, conducted due diligence on the Malaysian businessman. Politis said the checks were delegated to another Cyprus-based firm, who in turn farmed out the work to Thomson Reuters. The due diligence was completed in June 2015.
The paper said that based on the Risk Table, which consisted of 14 chapters, Low appeared problematic in four of the 14 headings investigated and there were a number of risk factors associated with him.
Contacted by the Cyprus Mail, interior ministry sources said that in early 2018 the government tightened up procedures for the citizenship application process, requiring passport brokers to submit their due diligence reports on their clients along with the application itself.
Previously, passport brokers were expected to conduct background checks on their clients but were not obligated to disclose or submit them to the interior ministry, which is in charge of naturalisations.
The Cyprus Mail understands that, until that time, the responsibility and liability for screening foreign applicants lay with the brokers alone, who might farm out the background checks to third parties.
The brokers and their associates (for example audit firms) were expected to comply with international standards regarding anti-money laundering activities.
Until early 2018, the government itself would only verify – for instance through Interpol – whether the applicant had a clean criminal record.
After that, the government began conducting its own (additional) screening, which consisted of accessing a database on individuals, available to corporations and to governments on a subscription basis.