The government on Thursday announced the pending appointment of an investigative committee to look into the entire period during which passports were granted to foreign nationals under the citizenship-by-investment programme.
Under the cabinet decision, the inquiry will cover the period 2008 up to July 31, 2020.
Selection of the committee members, as well as the panel’s precise mandate and scope of inquiry, has been assigned to the attorney-general.
According to government spokesman Kyriacos Kousios, the committee will have “broad investigative powers.”
But immediately questions arose over the probe’s impartiality, given that the current attorney-general, Giorgos Savvides, had previously served as justice minister, sat in on cabinet meetings, and therefore had had a say in at least some of the passports granted.
Savvides was justice minister from May 2019 to June 2020.
Moreover, the deputy attorney-general, Savvas Angelides, had until June this year served as defence minister.
The government spokesman sought to downplay the potential for a conflict of interest.
He said that by law either the cabinet itself or the attorney-general have the power to appoint investigative committees. In this case, the cabinet decided to delegate to the attorney-general, recommending to him that he set up the panel.
It’s now up to the attorney-general to determine whether a conflict of interest exists, Kousios offered.
Asked what might happen should Savvides decide there was a conflict of interest, Kousios said:
“Once he has the cabinet’s recommendation in hand, he himself will deem whether to go forward with setting up the committee and its terms of reference. If he decides there is any reason not to proceed in this way, the matter will come back to the cabinet.”
On why the probe would be covering all naturalizations under the citizenship-by-investment scheme, Kousios said it was precisely so that no stone would be left unturned.
“There must be a full and complete investigation, providing answers by the committee to be appointed by the attorney-general, we hope, in order that no questions remain hanging.”
Weighing in on the issue, lawyer Chris Triantafyllides earlier in the day said he foresaw impartiality and credibility issues given the attorney-general and his deputy previously served as government ministers.
He suggested that the period during which the two were members of the cabinet should be left out of the investigating committee’s scope.
“These problems arise when you appoint people who previously held political office,” Triantafyllides noted.
The lawyer recommended instead extending the mandate of a three-member committee headed by Demetra Kalogirou, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Kalogirou heads the committee appointed in November 2019 to look into certain citizenships granted from 2012 to 2018. The panel examined 12 files involving 42 individuals considered “high risk.”
Four of the files concerned seven persons who had withheld vital information on their applications. For these, the panel recommends the immediate rescinding of citizenship.
Triantafyllides also opined that if there are 25-30 problematic citizenships, then the state should rescind the passports and whoever has a problem can go to court.
Meantime Andros Kyprianou, leader of main opposition Akel, laid into the government for its attempt – as he said – to deflect from the substance of recent revelations relating to the investment programme.
“They are trying to make this about the leaks,” he remarked.
He was alluding to the event that kicked it all off– Al Jazeera’s release of a selection of 1,400 Cyprus government documents pertaining to the Cypriot investment programme, and which the media outlet claimed showed citizenship was “sold to dozens of foreigners linked to crime and corruption.”
The document dump has come to be known as the ‘Cyprus Papers’.
Authorities here are tracking the source of the leak.
Returning to the issue of the inquiry’s credibility, Akel’s Kyprianou said there’s another reason why the involvement of the current attorney-general is problematic.
Savvides, he pointed out, was a lawyer in a well-known law firm. What if it turned out that this law firm had helped secure passports for foreign nationals, Kyprianou asked.
Responding on Twitter, Savvides said his law firm, George L Savvides & Co LLC, “never acted as attorneys for any investor in the passport-issuance process under the Cyprus investment programme.”