Former interior minister Neoclis Sylikiotis defended the decision to grant citizenship to individuals who ran into problems later on, saying they fulfilled the criteria at the time.

“We couldn’t have known in 2009, 2010, 2011, that someone would have a problem afterwards,” he told an inquiry of about 30 cases found to be problematic.

The former minister, who held the interior affairs office twice, between 2006 and 2007 and again between 2008 and 2021, appeared before a four-member panel on December 17 but his testimony was made public on Thursday.

“There was no problem concerning those you mentioned, I cannot remember having any problem; as far as I can remember, we are talking about important investors with substantial activities in Russia and elsewhere abroad,” Sylikiotis said, replying to a suggestion that high-risk individuals had been naturalised during his term.

The probe was launched in September following a series of damning reports in the media, Cypriot and international, that Cyprus had been granting citizenships to dubious individuals through its citizenship by investment programme.

Before even starting its hearings, Al Jazeera aired an undercover video showing former House president Demetris Syllouris and former Akel MP Christakis Giovanis offering to help a fictitious Chinese businessman with a criminal record secure citizenship.

The two men have since resigned and the government was forced to terminate its citizenship by investment programme, as the EU launched legal proceedings against Cyprus.

The probe is looking into all citizenships granted between 2007 and 2020.

Sylikotis also defended the decision to grant citizenship to a Syrian national who was later sanctioned by the EU.

“We are talking about someone who was one of the biggest entrepreneurs in Syria; he invested in Cyprus and received an immigration permit in 2009 and was approved and received citizenship after a year and a half or two years if I’m not mistaken,” the former minister said.

Sylikotis added that in 2011 the EU had included him on a sanctions list because he supported the Assad regime.

“We could disagree with the political sanctions, but we are committed to the EU and as soon as we were informed by the foreign ministry about these sanctions, we launched the process for rescinding (the citizenship) in June 2011,” he said.

He said there were cases that were rejected, like the one of a Russian national who was one of the biggest producers of diamonds in the world.

Sylikiotis said there were reports that Unicef had censured him for child labour in the Congo but also that he was constructing settler housing in occupied Palestine.

“He did not have a conviction but beyond what is legal there is also morality and what is morally acceptable, and this did not go to cabinet, they did not approve it,” he said.

The former minister said the 2007 programme had contributed a lot to growth and at least until 2013, there were important investors, some still in Cyprus.