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28 May, 2024
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Gloves are off again over golden passports

Auditor incurs attorney general’s wrath after questioning legality for 221 naturalizations based on old criteria


Cyprus’ auditor general told a House committee this week that the Cabinet used old rules to approve over two hundred golden passports after the cutoff date for an investigation ordered by the attorney general, who pushed back on the criticism saying there was “no bottom to the abyss.”

According to local media, Auditor General Odysseas Michaelides on Thursday told a House committee hearing that the President’s Cabinet had approved 221 naturalizations of foreign investors and their relatives between August 2020 and February 2021, a period not affected by an ongoing probe into allegations of corruption.

Michaelides, who has been accused by the government of carrying out a political witch hunt over the country’s disgraced Citizenship by Investment Program, said the Interior Ministry sought and obtained a legal opinion from Attorney General George Savvides on 5 March 2021 regarding the approvals, insinuating there was a cover-up for executive transactions by the council of ministers in the preceding months.

But Savvides, who previously served as justice minister before becoming the nation’s chief legal advisor last year, rejected the accusations, citing an administrative law that codified general principles governing public administration acts was the basis of his legal opinion.

'What we understand is that the Cabinet kept on granting naturalizations... six months after the regulations were voted, as if they did not exist at all'

“Any person reading Act 158(I) of 1999 in good faith and with minimal knowledge on legal matters can comprehend it,” Savvides said, essentially saying he okayed golden passport approvals based on old rules rather than new rules because there was a short window allowing an administrative act to be adjudicated based on rules at the time an application was received if the administration had failed to act within a reasonable timeframe.

"When the administrative body is about to issue an act upon request, it will rely on the legal framework in force at the time of the issuance of the act, regardless of whether it was different at the time of the submission of the application in question. When the administration, after a reasonable period of time has passed, fails to proceed with the adjudication of the case, the rules in force at the end of the expiry of a warranted timeframe shall be taken into account," Savvides wrote.

Last September, Savvides gave instructions to a special committee to look into all passport approvals granted through the Cyprus Investment Program from 2007 through 17 August 2020, one day before the House voted to remove the Cabinet’s discretionary authority in issuing passports based on public interest amid credible allegations of corruption on the island exposed by Al Jazeera.

But the auditor general told House representatives this week that Savvides back in late June or early July of 2020, the time he was being installed as the country’s new chief law enforcement officer, said he would go along with a previous legal opinion issued by his predecessor, Costas Clerides, and wondered why the new attorney general had to issue a new legal opinion a month after the recent naturalizations took place. 

Michaelides also said Savvides told the public last year that cases received and receipted after the cutoff date would be examined under the new rules.

“What we have come to understand is that the President’s Cabinet kept on granting naturalizations, for cases that had been submitted before the vote on the new legislation, until February 2021 which was the last naturalization found by the Audit Office, in other words six months after the regulations were voted, as if they did not exist at all,” Michaelides said.

Bottomless abyss

Savvides fought back saying in his statement “there is no bottom to the abyss into which some politicians and officials are falling,” adding that the matter was not different from the interpretation given by the former attorney general, which were legality issues and nothing more.

“I will not disgrace the high institution I serve by following them in this downfall,” Savvides said.

An independent probe into allegations of corruption over golden passports has sparked controversy in Cyprus, after opposition parties cried foul over the government’s refusal to grant the auditor general access to passport files.

Opposition parties are accusing the government of trying to cover up illegal acts and corruption, while government officials argue the auditor has political motives as he is getting support from the opposition.

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