Four charged over Cyprus ‘cash-for-passports’ scheme

Former President of Cyprus Parliament and ex-MP among four charged with corruption, legal sources say, following Al Jazeera investigation.

Four people, including the former president of the Cyprus Parliament, have been charged with corruption over a cash-for-passports scandal exposed by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit.

The four are due to stand trial in the capital, Nicosia, on 12 September after the island’s attorney general filed five counts of conspiracy to defraud the state and untoward influence over public officials on Thursday.

Cyprus authorities said the charges were related both to Al Jazeera’s investigation, and the findings of a 2021 board of inquiry prompted by the exposé.

The authorities did not identify the people charged, but legal sources told Al Jazeera they were Demetris Syllouris, former president of the Cyprus Parliament; Christakis Giovani, a former member of parliament and property developer; Antonis Antoniou, the Giovani Group’s executive director; and lawyer Andreas Pittadjis.

The passports scandal was exposed in an Al Jazeera documentary, The Cyprus Papers Undercover, released in October 2020.

The Cyprus Papers Undercover

In the documentary, all four men told undercover reporters posing as representatives of a fictitious wealthy Chinese criminal that they were willing to help the criminal obtain a Cypriot passport and become a citizen of the European Union – for a price.

The four men said that they would help the criminal acquire a passport through the Cyprus Investment Programme under which passports could be issued for a minimum of 2.15 million euros ($2.5m at the time) investment.

However, according to Cypriot law, convicted criminals were barred from benefitting from the programme.

When the reporters asked Pittadjis if he had previously changed a client’s name for a passport so his criminal record would not be detected, he replied, laughing: “Of course, this is Cyprus!”

Syllouris, then-president of the Cyprus Parliament, told the reporters that they would have his “full support”.

Asked if the criminal applicant would receive a passport, he said: “I cannot say 100 percent but I say 99 percent.”

All four men denied any wrongdoing.

Within days of the documentary’s release, the passport scheme was cancelled, Syllouris and Giovani resigned, and the European Union and the Cyprus government and police launched investigations.

Thousands protested against corruption outside the Parliament building in Nicosia.

Leaked documents showed more wrongdoing

European Union passports are much-coveted documents for people from Asia, the Middle East and countries like Russia and Ukraine.

As an EU citizen, a Cyprus passport-holder is free to live, work and travel in the 27 EU member states and enjoy visa-free access to more than 170 countries.

Before The Cyprus Papers Undercover was aired, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit released The Cyprus Papers, a trove of more than 2,000 leaked applications for the Cypriot passport programme.

Those documents showed that between 2017 and 2019 Cyprus had approved passports for more than 30 people who were under criminal investigation, international sanctions or serving prison sentences.

A further 40 applicants held sensitive political or state positions which meant they were considered a serious risk for bribery or money laundering under EU guidelines.

In that period, Cyprus had approved more than 1,400 passports under the scheme, with many including family members, taking the total to nearly 2,500.

The 2021 Cyprus inquiry into the citizenship scheme found that 53 per cent of the 6,779 citizenships granted between 2007 and 2020 – the vast majority of them to Russians – were unlawful.

The Cyprus exposé was part of a wider investigation which showed how a criminal could buy an English football club and use it to launder the proceeds of crime, helped by “enablers” who could hide his wealth and change his identity – with a new passport.

The undercover reporters were led to Cyprus by Keith Hunter, a private investigator and former Scotland Yard detective, who said he had contacts on the island who could help the criminal client obtain a passport.

The Men Who Sell Football was released in August 2021 and won a raft of awards and a BAFTA nomination in 2022. The Cyprus Papers Undercover was nominated for a BAFTA the previous year.

Source: Al Jazeera