Agency: No Cyprus passports for wealthy investors’ families

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) — Cyprus’ top oversight body urged lawmakers on Thursday to rethink new legislation that empowers the government to grant citizenship to family members of wealthy investors under the country’s lucrative “golden passport” program.

The Cyprus Audit Office said handing passports to investors’ family members who haven’t contributed “a single euro” to the Mediterranean island nation’s economy shortchanges state coffers.

The office said “thousands” of wealthy family members have been granted citizenship since 2013, even though the law at the time didn’t give the government the authority to do so. That legal amendment granting the government that authority was passed earlier this year.

The program has attracted many foreigner investors because a Cyprus passport automatically grants its holder citizenship access to the entire 27-member European Union. Around 4,000 Cypriot passports have been issued to investors under the program, generating at least 7 billion euros ($8.15 billion).

The Audit Office said three out of five cases that it examined raised “reasonable suspicions” that the true applicant was the investor’s spouse, “so that perhaps the investor who is a high-risk individual is not asked to explain the source of his wealth.” Two family members who were granted passports didn’t even meet eligibility criteria.

The report noted one applicant who was on an EU sanctions list and another who was under investigation by Interpol in his home country for financial crimes.

It said of the 635 applications still pending since May 2018, 91 should have been already rejected because officials have found evidence of possible money laundering, forgery, fraud, tax evasion or bribery.

Cyprus’ Investment Program has come under renewed scrutiny following new reports alleging that dozens of foreigners who each pledged up to 2.5 million euros ($2.9 million) to obtain citizenship had been accused of an assortment of crimes.

A separate probe by the Cyprus Security and Exchange Commission recommended this month that authorities revoke citizenship from seven individuals who submitted forged documents in their application.

The Cyprus government has conceded that “mistakes” were made and has beefed up eligibility criteria in recent years. The most recent changes that lawmakers approved last month include new anti-money laundering vetting rules and making it easier to revoke the citizenship of investors involved in or convicted of a serious crime.

An independent committee has been set up to probe thousands of applications that were made since 2007. The investment program had gathered pace after 2013, when a financial crisis nearly brought Cyprus to bankruptcy.

Cyprus’ Interior Ministry criticized the Audit Office of overstepping it’s purview with a “fragmentary” report that covers only a limited time frame. It said in a statement that it would wait for the findings of the independent committee, which will decide whether all the rules were applied and eligibility criteria met at each phase of the program.

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