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Audit service willing to go to Supreme Court over passports probe (updated)

The interior ministry has refused to hand over additional information sought by the audit service as part of an investigation into the island’s citizenship by investment programme after allegations that passports had been granted to dubious individuals, the service said on Tuesday.

The service had said that as a first stage the audit will mainly concentrate on citizenships granted after the programme’s criteria were amended in May 2018 though it did not preclude it from extending its probe into other time periods, depending on its findings.

The audit’s objective is to investigate the procedures applied by the ministries of finance and interior in granting citizenships to foreign investors, mainly whether these individuals, and others who were involved in transactions, had been handled properly by the tax department.

In a statement on Tuesday, the audit service said its staff visited the ministry on Monday and picked up a list, without names, of all the citizenships granted after May 21, 2018, when the government introduced stricter criteria.

Auditors also collected five files relating to recent claims by Al Jazeera that Cyprus had granted citizenships to shady characters, which they thought should be included in the sample.

On Tuesday, auditors sought 15 more files but the interior ministry official in charge told them “she has instructions not to provide any more information pending the opinion sought from the attorney-general” on the matter.

The audit service said it respected the government’s right to seek a legal opinion even though it considered its right to audit the state’s revenues from the programme as self-evident.

It warned that if the government’s refusal were based on the legal opinion of the AG then the case would end up before the supreme court who would have the final say.

The service stressed the seriousness of the matter, adding that a preliminary perusal of the five files raised serious issues of potential loss of state revenues.

“The audit service expects that, without further delay, it will be allowed to go ahead with the full review of all the 20 cases it had included in its sample to determine whether from the actions and decisions of the executive there was a loss of revenues.”

The interior ministry said it had sought the AG’s opinion on which information should be handed over to the auditor-general as soon as it received notice, on August 24, that he intended to carry out a probe.

“We remind you that the personal data commissioner’s recommendation also binds the interior ministry in the way sensitive information is handled,” the ministry said, rejecting the accusation that it had refused to hand over the files.

“The interior ministry shows full respect to the state’s institutions (and) we are certain that the same respect would be displayed by the auditor-general pending the AG’s opinion.”

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