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Our View: Government left it too late to act over passports

A hastily called Council of Ministers meeting on Tuesday decided to scrap the citizenship by investment programme in its current form as of November 1. It was very drastic action, triggered by the latest revelations made by Al Jazeera, which had filmed House President Demetris Syllouris and an Akel deputy offering to help a Chinese businessman with a criminal record – who it later emerged was fictitious – to obtain a Cyprus passport.

What shocked people was the way Syllouris, deputy Christakis Giovannis and Paralimni lawyer Andreas Pittadjis assured the bogus representatives of the fictitious criminal, who had supposedly served time for money laundering, that it would be easy to bend the rules and avoid the eligibility criteria, including applying with a different name, because “this is Cyprus.” They resorted to the kind of language used by hard-nosed salesmen determined to seal a deal, assuring the prospective client that the strict criteria and regulations were no obstacle to them.

These boasts left the government with no choice but to scrap the programme, rather than leave itself open to accusations that the closing of loop-holes and stricter criteria it had introduced, in 2016 and 2019, were not effective. It now also has the European Commission to deal with, with a Commission spokesman saying, “we watched in disbelief how high-level officials were trading European citizenship for financial gains,” and adding that “we expect the competent Cypriot authorities to thoroughly look into the case.”

Attorney-general Giorgos Savvides announced on Tuesday that he had already given instructions to the police to carry out a full investigation into the possibility of the committing of criminal offences. This was a step in the right direction, because anyone found to have committed offences must be brought before justice regardless of their political rank or connections. Last week the cabinet decided to revoke the citizenships of seven people because they were found to have hidden significant information in their applications by a committee investigating all cases approved since 2014; another 12 were forwarded to police for investigation.

There is no doubt the programme has been abused in the past and its rules violated, but it is ironic that it will be scrapped just when it has been made much stricter and three reputable, foreign companies have been hired to carry out due diligence of every application. The government left it too late to take corrective measures, which is why it has had to scrap a programme that had greatly helped the recovery of the economy after the collapse of 2013 and would also have helped the country cope with the current economic slowdown.

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