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President to ask for citizenship programme probe, House seeks legal advice over leaked papers (Updated)

President Nicos Anastasiades intends to ask the attorney-general to appoint an investigating committee to probe the island’s citizenship by investment programme, it was announced on Wednesday, days after international reports that Cyprus had granted citizenships to a number of dubious individuals.

According to a presidency statement, Anastasiades expressed regrets over the goings-on following the reports by Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera.

The reports have sparked a war of words between parties, which the president hopes to end with the investigation.

The presidency said Anastasiades intends to propose to the attorney-general on Thursday to appoint a three-member panel to investigate the programme’s operation between 2007 and July 31, 2020, when parliament approved the new, stricter, legal framework.

The decision does not affect the auditor-general’s powers, granted by the constitution, to carry out an audit of the tax department to determine whether the investments had been handled properly, the presidency said.

Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides has announced his own probe into the programme to determine whether the state had lost revenues in the form of taxes for example or transfer fees.

His audit however has been hampered by the interior ministry’s decision to ask for a legal opinion regarding the handling of confidential information. On Tuesday, the interior ministry refused to hand over additional files the audit service had asked for, despite giving up several earlier in the week.

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 attorney-general 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 already in its possession raised serious issues of potential loss of state revenues.

Police, meanwhile, are conducting their own investigation in a bid to find the source that leaked the confidential documents to Al Jazeera.

From the onset, the government suggested the documents had been leaked to the broadcaster by someone inside parliament. The legislature, however, has so far refused to cooperate with the authorities citing potential constitutional issues.

On Tuesday, House director Socratis Socratous declined to hand over certain files sought by police on the orders of the attorney-general.

Police officers showed up with a document presentation order signed by the attorney-general, asking Socratous to hand over documents relating to the citizenships granted by the government to 115 individuals.

The order includes original files and documents kept in parliament, original correspondence and annexes sent by the interior ministry, and original receipts of delivery. The authorities also want any other documents relating to the documents’ handling by parliament.

“If you fail to deliver the documents in question without reasonable cause, you are committing an offence punishable with imprisonment that does not exceed three years or a fine of €2,562 or both,” the order said.

It said police are investigating criminal offences including abuse of power, violation of confidentiality and disclosure of state secrets and bribery.

During a meeting of party leaders or representatives on Wednesday, parliament decided to ask for the opinion of three legal experts in relation with the police demand.

Edek MP Costis Efstathiou said it was decided to seek the advice of Giorgos Nicolaou, Achilleas Emilianides, and Chris Triantafyllides.

Main opposition Akel parliamentary spokesman, Giorgos Loukaides, said the police’s ultimatum was unanimously rejected.

“The leaders’ meeting unanimously judged that the ultimatum conveyed by the police was institutionally and legally unacceptable,” Loukaides said. “To bolster the parliament’s position on this we decided to reach out to external legal advisers.”

Loukaides added that his party considered the move politically unacceptable also, as it was an effort by the government to mislead from the substance of the matter, which was none other than the serious mistakes the government made as regards the investment programme.

He was echoed by Edek MP Costis Efstathiou who went a step further censuring ruling Disy leader Averof Neophytou for suggesting that the leak could only have been the work of some 18 people – party leaders and MPs who are members of the House interior affairs committee.

“It was a completely inopportune and misplaced statement and it is exactly this that raises problems and issues out of nothing,” Efstathiou said. “An MP cannot point the finger at his colleagues as if he is the prosecutor.”

 

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