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Revoking citizenship might not be so straight forward

jho low passport Photo: Politis

This week’s announcement that the government intends to revoke 26 citizenships issued under the investment for passport scheme may prove hard to enforce.

Stripping individuals of their citizenship opens up a host of legal issues as individuals do have the right to face their accuser, as it were, and challenge a passport revocation decision.

What’s more, what happens to their investments/property in Cyprus once they do lose their citizenship rights?

The 26 reportedly include one Malaysian, eight Cambodians, nine Russians, five Chinese, one Iranian and two Kenyans.

No names of passport holders were officially released but the Malaysian is believed to be businessman Jho Taek Low who is wanted in Malaysia and elsewhere in connection with financial crimes and received a Cypriot passport in 2015.

The list also includes eight Cambodians. Reuters disclosed last month that relatives and allies of the Cambodian authoritarian leader acquired Cypriot passports in 2016 and 2017.

After the announcement Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides cautioned that the government cannot automatically revoke citizenships, as due process must be followed.

The relevant law governing citizenship gives a range of reasons that the cabinet can use to issue a decree depriving any citizen of their citizenship.

Two sections of the law are particularly pertinent. The first stipulates that citizenship can be revoked if within five years of becoming naturalised, the citizen has been sentenced in any country to imprisonment for a term of not less than twelve months.

And another section stipulates:

“The Council of Ministers shall not deprive a person of his citizenship under this section unless it is satisfied that it is not conducive to the public good that that person should continue to be a citizen of the Republic.”

This appears to confer wide latitude on the government, given that the same law does not spell out what ‘the public good’ is.

The law further stipulates that the cabinet, prior to issuing a revocation decree, must notify the individual in writing, informing them of the grounds on which the proposed revocation is being made.

Moreover, the cabinet has a duty to inform the individual of their right to an inquiry.

Should the affected person exercise their right to an inquiry, the cabinet shall refer the case to a committee of inquiry appointed by the cabinet. The members of the committee are appointed at the cabinet’s discretion.

The cabinet’s intention to revoke citizenship must be disclosed to the affected individual via letter, delivered to the person’s last known address in Cyprus.

To ensure that a person is notified, it’s understood that their passport broker is likewise alerted.

If the individual does not challenge the process to have their citizenship revoked within the set deadline, the cabinet then proceeds with the revocation.

Regardless, said lawyer Andreas Angelides, the person may subsequently mount a legal challenge to the decision by taking recourse to the administrative court.

And should the person win the case, via a ruling stating that the citizenship revocation was unlawful or otherwise unjustified, their citizenship would be reinstated and they could even sue the state for damages.

According to Angelides, settled case law in Cyprus shows that it is not sufficient for the state to generically invoke ‘the public good’ when stripping someone of their citizenship.

“Cases adjudged at the supreme court – for example one involving a Lebanese national whom I represented – showed us that the state must specify precisely what the cited ‘public good’ is, on a case-by-case basis.”

The supreme court has also dealt with the question of whether cabinet decrees are subject to judicial review. The top court found that cabinet decisions are in fact administrative acts, and therefore courts do have jurisdiction over such matters.

Which is to say that chagrined naturalised foreign investors – most of whom are high rollers – could tangle the state up in legal battles should they choose to.

“Now, whether they want to go to court is another matter. I guess it depends on how clean they are, and whether they want to surface,” offered Angelides, evidently alluding to individuals wanted by law enforcement authorities overseas.

Regarding European law, he said that it leaves citizenship revocation questions up to the national (domestic) courts.

It does appear, therefore, that individuals do have recourse.

On the flipside, when it comes to the citizenship-by-investment scheme, the cabinet has broad discretionary powers. Since it is the cabinet itself which has the final say in approving these naturalisations, it follows that equally applies to revoking citizenships. In short, such decisions are ultimately political in nature.

But what of the fate of the investors’ properties in Cyprus, the purchase of which gave them citizenship in the first place?

Angelides said that private property is an inalienable right, and as such the property cannot be seized and/or transferred even if one’s citizenship is revoked.

Assuming that is so cut and dry, it conjures up images of sumptuous villas left derelict, with crumbling wall plasters and spreading cobwebs.

At any rate, according to local press reports, to date Cyprus has received no request from a foreign government to seize the property of a naturalised foreign investor, including for the Malaysian Low.

 

 

 

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