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‘Unpleasant surprises’ await in Audit Office’s passport report

File Photo: Photo Illustration Of A Cypriot Passport

The Audit Office said on Monday it has wrapped up its report on the ‘golden passports’ and will be releasing it next month.

Speaking to a local radio station, Audit Office spokesman Marios Petrides said they have just completed the dossier, which management will check before giving the green light to publish it – sometime after the mid-August holiday.

“This is the product of the audit which they didn’t let us do when we said we wanted to,” Petrides commented.

He was alluding to the interior ministry’s stonewalling of the agency’s work. The auditor-general had launched a probe into the citizenship-by-investment programme back in July 2019, requesting information from the civil registry and migration department. It received a response five months later that the information it was seeking was kept at the interior ministry.

Acting on legal advice furnished by the attorney-general, the interior ministry then declined to provide the Audit Office with the requested files “for the time being”, citing concerns about overlap with other ongoing investigations.

According to Petrides, their own findings now will “surprise, but not pleasantly”.

He said their report will show shortcomings and flaws in the investment scheme – including the cabinet not being given all of the information regarding citizenship applications coming before it.

The cabinet had the final say on approving citizenship applications through the scheme, based on recommendations made to it by the interior minister.

“We examined all the memos in the file prepared by interior ministry functionaries for the permanent secretary and the [interior] minister, as well as what documents the minister took with him to the cabinet.”

Petrides said that in several cases the cabinet was shown incomplete information.

The Audit Office probe covers some 3,500 citizenship cases.

“We have data on bills of sale that were in force and where the transfer [of property] was not carried through,” Petrides said of their findings.

“We also have data on the VAT amounts lost by the Republic, as the investors [foreign nationals applying for Cypriot passports] paid 5 per cent VAT instead of 19 per cent, and we [the Cypriot state] had concealed from the European Union certain data.”

The European Commission had launched infringement proceedings against Cyprus initially in October 2020. But in November of the same year Cyprus axed its controversial citizenships programme after an undercover Al Jazeera video showed former House president Demetris Syllouris and former Akel MP Christakis Giovanis offering help to a pretend Chinese businessman with a criminal record to secure citizenship.

The commission had flagged the Cypriot scheme over concerns that people with no links to the country other than their investment were granted passports.

A subsequent inquiry in Cyprus into the scheme found that 53 per cent of the 6,779 citizenships granted overall were unlawful, and said politicians and institutions had political responsibilities while certain applicants and service providers may be held criminally culpable. The probe covered the period from the scheme’s inception in 2007, through to August 2020.

Earlier this month, the attorney-general’s office announced they will be prosecuting four individuals in connection with the passports scheme. The four persons face five counts on two charges – conspiracy to defraud the Republic, and influencing a public official in violation of the law that ratifies the Council of Europe Convention on the Criminalisation of Corruption.

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