House president Demetris Syllouris categorically denied any wrongdoing after he and Akel MP Christakis Giovanis appeared ready to help a Chinese businessman with a criminal record secure a Cypriot passport in a video captured by undercover Al Jazeera reporters made public on Monday.
The broadcaster had announced publication of its report on Sunday, prompting Syllouris and Giovanis, who is also a developer, to respond in the morning before the publication, accusing Al Jazeera of entrapment and having ulterior motives.
Syllouris denied any wrongdoing, saying the case was reported to the authorities a couple of days after he and Giovanis had lunch with the reporters who claimed they had been acting on behalf of a Chinese businessman.
“When he spoke to me and I realised what it was about, especially when he told me about someone who is convicted in China and lived in Hong Kong, it was an additional reason to confirm Mr Giovanis’ warnings,” Syllouris said.
He said as soon as the lunch finished he told Giovanis “he is very dangerous, you have business in China, I will be going on an official visit to China in a few days … his activities are probably criminal and you must report him.”
The report also features lawyer Andreas Pittadjis, who is among the registered service providers of the island’s citizenship by investment programme.
According to the report, two undercover AJ reporters approached a former London police officer, an “enabler” who brought them in touch with an estate agency, which worked with Giovanis, to discuss how they could secure a passport for a Chinese businessman they represented who had run into trouble with the law.
The reporters said the businessman, who was in Hong Kong, had been convicted to seven years in jail in absentia by China for money laundering.
In a meeting in a hotel room in Cyprus, the estate agent told the reporters they had a 100 per cent success rate in securing passports for people because of Giovanis.
“The most important person is Christakis. He’s an MP.”
The agent said Giovanis was a “very, very, very” good man to know “when it comes to what we’re doing right now.”
He went on to tell the undercover reporters that they had problematic clients before
“but we managed through Christakis’ connectivity to break all the rules and in an unprecedented way we got the passport issued.”
The reporters later get to meet Pittadjis who even suggested changing the businessman’s name to secure the passport.
The lawyer said Giovanis was close friends with the permanent secretary of the interior ministry, which oversaw the programme.
“When you know the angels you don’t need God,” Pittadjis said.
The reporters ended up having lunch at Giovanis’ house on October 26, 2019, along with Syllouris and the developer’s associates.
During the meeting, Syllouris suggested that if there was a problem in Cyprus “maybe we can go to another European country” offering his contacts with the heads of other, foreign, parliaments.
“So, I can do something in other countries. I know all the presidents of other parliaments,” Syllouris said, specifying Malta, Latvia, and Slovenia.
The House president suggested hosting the businessman in Cyprus for a couple of days.
“If there is a problem, we’re not going to stop. We’re not going to abandon,” he said. “You can tell him that you have, without mentioning my name or anybody else, full support from Cyprus at any level; political, economy, society, anything.
Syllouris asked the reporter not to mention they met “because I have to protect my name as well.”
Before the report aired, Giovanis spoke of entrapment and staged propaganda.
In a statement, the Akel MP said he had reported the case to the anti-money laundering unit, Mokas, on October 29, 2019.
A year later they received a letter from Al Jazeera seeking comment, he said, prompting them to report the case to the attorney-general on October 5 this year asking him to investigate the matter, as well as the possibility of “spying, impersonation, and violation of personal data.”
In a news conference, Syllouris said an Al Jazeera agent was behind the new reports implicating him and reiterated that the case was reported to the authorities because they got suspicious when they were told the businessman was Chinese and he was convicted but lived in Hong Kong.
He did admit there was a possibility of people seeing him in the report telling people he would sort them out, and that “if you don’t make it in Cyprus we can go to other countries in Europe since your man is innocent.”
Asked why they had the lunch since both he and Giovanis had their suspicions, Syllouris said he had been invited to the lunch a long time ago and not for the particular reason.
Syllouris said Giovanis’ suspicions were reinforced during the private meeting they had with the reporter and that the MP had encouraged him to say more.
This was Al Jazeera’s second expose on Cyprus’ investment programme dubbed Cyprus Papers. In August, citing leaked documents, the broadcaster reported Cyprus was granting passports to dubious individuals, sparking a barrage of denials and accusations that it was out to smear the island.