Several high-ranking Cypriot officials, politicians, lawyers and real estate developers are implicated in a scheme that allows criminals to buy a European passport using the country’s citizenship through an investment programme, an Al Jazeera investigation has found.
In The Cyprus Papers Undercover, Al Jazeera reveals how the country’s highest political ranks are willing to aid and abet convicted criminals to obtain Cypriot citizenship, granting the criminal access to the European Union’s internal markets and visa-free travel.
Among those are parliamentary speaker Demetris Syllouris and opposition Akel member of parliament, Christakis Giovanis, who is also one of the country’s largest real estate developers.
The revelation comes two months after Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit published The Cyprus Papers, a leak of 1,400 documents showing Cyprus regularly failed to adhere to its own laws and allowed convicted criminals and fugitives to obtain its citizenship.
Following the investigation, Cyprus defended the programme, saying there had been several mistakes in recent years but the tightening of laws and applicants’ background checks were sufficient to stop criminals from obtaining a passport.
Cyprus’s citizenship through investment programme grants a Cypriot passport to anyone who invests at least $2.5m in the country, often through real estate investments.
Since 2013, when the passport programme started, the country has made more than seven billion euros ($8bn). The amount is used to keep the nation’s failing economy afloat.
Although legal, the programme has been criticised regularly by the European Union and anti-corruption NGOs, saying it has facilitated the laundering of stolen assets from Russia and beyond.
Using an undercover operative called Billy, who claimed to represent a Chinese investor sentenced to seven years in prison for money laundering, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit gained access to some of the country’s highest-ranking politicians involved in the scheme.
From the start, Billy was open about the prison sentence, which would officially disqualify the non-existing applicant for the Cyprus Investment Programme (CIP).
However, Billy was told by a real estate developer all the way up to the speaker of parliament that the prison sentence would not be an issue as long as enough money was invested.
“That’s not the first to face this issue in Cyprus,” Andreas Pittadjis, a registered service provider for the CIP, told Billy. “I had a guy who was in custody for two years. He was in prison for two years for corruption and money laundering.
“We had ways to justify everything and he went through with the approval of his passport application. He now has his visa waiting for him. No problems whatsoever.”
Pittadjis even suggested changing the name on the passport, which, in combination with the new passport, would allow a convicted criminal to assume a completely new identity.
“Of course we can change his name. This is Cyprus,” he said.
The lawyer’s comments were echoed by high-ranking politicians.
Syllouris and Giovani said they would do everything in their power to get Billy’s non-existing criminal employer a passport.
“It’s not easy. But I can promise, we shall do the best. And I believe we have the experience,” Giovani said.
Syllouris went even further, saying: “You can tell him that he will have, without mentioning my name or anybody else’s, full support from Cyprus. At any level – political, economic, social, everything – ok.”
The citizenship through investment programme is popular with people from countries like Russia, China and Ukraine, granting them access to European markets while also offering an option to store their money offshore.
As a result, many businesses, such as the Giovani Group, a real estate developer founded by politician Giovani, cater specifically to wealthy investors.
Its executive director Antonis Antoniou, said Billy’s employer should look at investing more in Cyprus – up to 20 million euros – despite knowing he was a convicted criminal.