The daily publication of reports by the foreign media network Al Jazeera targeting the Cyprus citizenship-for-investment programme after gaining possession of over 1,400 leaked documents has sent the Cyprus government rushing to set the record straight.
Interior minister Nicos Nouris flew hastily back to Cyprus from Greece on Tuesday in order to respond to the allegations made by the multiple articles and videos published by the foreign network, and to present a united front on the part of the Cyprus government, which has unyieldingly rejected the accusations and pointed toward a purposeful attack against the island and its economy.
According to the interior minister on Wednesday, “we are witnessing an orchestrated effort by the Al Jazeera network to attack our country through means of deception.”
He stressed that the articles are “not investigative journalism but propaganda against Cyprus,” adding that they refer to cases that have already been investigated by the responsible bodies long before the publications, noting that the articles themselves aim only toward damaging the reputation and economy of the island.
Nouris gave assurances that the Cyprus Parliament will be thoroughly briefed on all naturalization cases.
"The Anastasiades government inherited a citizenship program in which there was no framework for scrutiny as regards politically exposed persons (PEPs),” he said.
Without regard to the Al Jazeera articles, all cases who were granted citizenship until 2018 have been checked, with three so far revoked.
Nouris said the interior ministry has from the first instant been investigating all the information contained in the Al Jazeera articles that were based on information obtained through a leak of some 1,400 documents relating to the Cyprus ‘golden passports’ program, with the documents dubbed the Cyprus Papers.
Interior minister responds to Al Jazeera allegations
Nouris said the cases for which Al Jazeera raised the alarm amount to 117 in total, and all have been checked by the interior ministry’s naturalization unit.
“All the persons in question, which we will avoid naming for obvious reasons, at the time of submission of their applications, met the criteria of the program and were holders of a blank criminal record from their country of origin and their country of residence in those cases where this differed.”
“In addition, during the examination of their applications, no evidence was found against them by the audits of the relevant state security services and Interpol,” Nouris stressed, noting that “what is being observed is a deliberate attempt on the part of Al Jazeera to falsify data.”
Nouris said that for example, Al Jazeera may refer to a criminal offence of a person who was convicted in his country prior to receiving Cyprus citizenship, “but it conceals the fact that the offence was written off by the home country which issued the applicant a clean criminal record.”
Nouris also said certain allegations made by the Al Jazeera articles regarding sanctions or convictions against people who purchased a Cyprus passport are false.
There were also cases, Nouris said, where the convictions referred to by the articles occurred after the granting of citizenship, and so could not have been taken into account during the application examination stage.
Nouris diverts focus to current stricter rules
The interior minister highlighted that the current government had acknowledge the need for stricter checks on people deemed high-risk and PEPs, “and so we moved to establish specific categories of people who would no longer have the right to obtain citizenship [through the program], provisions that were not included in the program from its introduction in 2007 until May 2019.”
“In addition to the audits carried out by the Ministry of Interior, in February 2019, by decision of the Council of Ministers, more effective control mechanisms were introduced, which include the reaching of a cooperation agreement with three internationally recognized companies which are responsible for conducting thorough and detailed checks on applications. These are KROLL, STERLING and SRM INTELLIGENCE, which are among the top ten companies in the world for due diligence.”
Since 2013, both the criteria of the program and the mechanisms of supervision and due diligence have evolved gradually but decisively, Nouris said, culminating in the very important adjustments of 2019, and most importantly in the recent vote of Parliament in July 2020 on the stricter regulations of the program.
Nouris also referred to the establishment of a three-member committee under the chairman of the Hellenic Capital Market Commission, to which the Council of Ministers gave clear terms of reference for audits, as well as to the linking of the program with money laundering legislation, in line with European directives and Moneyval's anti-corruption recommendations.
“The question that arises and should concern both the political leadership and each citizen individually is why in the context of ‘investigative journalism’, Al Jazeera did not choose similar naturalization programs that operate in a number of countries such as Turkey, Malta, Bulgaria, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Indicatively, I will mention that the number that received Cypriot citizenship in the framework of the Cyprus Investment Program in 2018 amounted to 1100 persons at the same time that the corresponding total number in the European Union for the same period amounted to 850,000.”
Government raises credibility issues
“At a time when Cyprus is under threat and is waging a major political battle against Turkey's expansionist tendencies, at a time when our country is threatened by targeted and organized demographic change with directed migration flows, the news network Al Jazeera, based in a country known for its pro-Turkish positions and which only recently supported the Turkish economy with 15 billion, is trying to attack the Republic of Cyprus with distorted and misleading information,” Nouris said.
“It is clear to us that the effort to hurt Cyprus is taking place shortly before the important European Council Summit which will be called upon to decide on immigration and the granting European citizenship,” he added.