Probe: Cyprus wrongly issued passports despite warnings

No surprise. Like the vast majority of these programs, vulnerable to corruption, both in terms of those applying and administering:

The Cyprus government continued for at least four years to unlawfully issue passports to relatives of wealthy investors under an investment-for-citizenship program, despite warnings by the Attorney-General that this could be in breach of the law, the head of an independent commission said on Monday.

Former Supreme Court President Myron Nicolatos said that, of the 6,779 passports issued during the program’s 13-year run, 53% were issued not to the investors themselves but to family members or top company executives.

The Attorney-General’s Office had warned on separate occasions in 2015 and 2016 that the practice might be unlawful because there was no specific law enabling the government to issue such passports.

Of the remainder that were granted to investors, one-third failed to meet all the criteria, Nicolatos said. He was speaking after handing the final, 780-page report of an investigation into the multibillion-euro program to Attorney General George Savvides,

He said 8% didn’t meet the primary condition of investing around 2.5 million euros ($3 billion) into the Cypriot economy, while another 12% failed to meet the bar on owning a permanent residence in Cyprus.

Nicolatos said the four-member commission is recommending that authorities look into revoking citizenship in 85 cases in which the applicants may have committed criminal or other offenses to secure a passport.

He said that revoking the citizenship of investors’ relatives and company executives who weren’t directly at fault could prove “particularly complicated” because of legal clauses enshrined in Cypriot and European Union law.

“It’s obvious that the (program) operated between 2007 and Aug. 17, 2020, with blanks and omissions, without a legal framework and almost without a regulatory framework,” Nicolatos said.

“Also absent were those safety valves, the proper legal guidance as well as adequate supervision regarding existing laws and regulations.”

The program was scrapped last year amid much controversy over an undercover TV report that allegedly showed the parliamentary speaker and a powerful lawmaker claiming that they could skirt the rules to grant citizenships.

They had made the pledge to a reporter posing as a representative of a fictitious Chinese investor who had been convicted of fraud in his country. Both resigned shortly after the report was aired.

The golden passport program ran for 13 years but was ramped up in 2013 following the financial crisis. It generated more than 8 billion euros (almost $10 billion) for the east Mediterranean island nation and proved particularly attractive to foreign investors because obtaining an EU passport allowed them access to the 27-member bloc.

The EU had also taken Cyprus to task over the scheme.

Nicolatos also faulted some lawyers, accountants, banks, real estate brokers and developers who he said “didn’t sufficiently live up to their legal or other obligations” through the application process, while in some instances, supervisory authorities failed to do their job properly.

Politicians and officials may bear “political” responsibility for the debacle and some could face disciplinary action.

Although the program spanned the tenure of three different presidents, the overwhelming majority of citizenships were granted during seven years during which the sitting president, Nicos Anastasiades, held the office.

He called on law enforcement authorities to prosecute alleged law breakers and to mete out punishment to the degree of an individual’s responsibility.

Attorney General Savvides said authorities would examine revoking citizenships, take lawbreakers to court and take disciplinary action in those instances that the report recommends.

In the first such legal action, his office last month took five individuals and four legal entities to court to face 37 charges in connection with the commission’s findings.

A redacted version of the final report — so as not to compromise ongoing legal actions — will be made public in due course, Savvides said.

An interim report released in March also pointed to serious shortcomings in how the Interior Ministry processed applications, including the “complete lack” of a database to properly vet applicants. It said the Finance Ministry was also at fault for “green lighting” certain applications that didn’t fulfil all the criteria due to the size of the investment.

Source: Probe: Cyprus wrongly issued passports despite warnings

The scandal-hit market for passports and long-term visas is booming

From the Economist:

FOR THE industry’s critics, it is a scandal that exposes exactly what they have been warning about. Many people have an almost instinctive distaste for the business in selling long-term-residence rights in a country or even citizenship there for cash, usually in the form of an authorised investment. So a documentary this month on Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based television channel, seeming to uncover corruption in an “investment migration” scheme offered by Cyprus, did not not seem especially shocking. It showed Cypriot politicians filmed in a sting operation, apparently willing to sell their country’s passport to a (fictitious) Chinese businessman who, in the cover story, had been convicted to seven years in jail for money-laundering, and so should have been ineligible.

For the industry’s practitioners—the consultants, accountants, bankers, wealth managers, lawyers and government departments selling their country’s charms—this is a blow. Although the politicians involved have protested their innocence, Cyprus has suspended its “golden passport” scheme from November 1st. European Union officials in Brussels and members of the European Parliament were already hostile to such schemes. And in response to the latest scandal, the European Commission has begun legal action (“infringement procedures”) to investigate both Cyprus’s scheme and one offered by Malta. It is an extremely sensitive issue for the EU. On the one hand, no issue is more jealousy guarded as a “national” competence than whom a country allows to be a citizen. On the other hand, a passport from an EU member confers the right to live and work anywhere in the EU; and a “Schengen” visa allows free travel to 22 EU members and four other countries.

Source: The scandal-hit market for passports and long-term visas is booming

After outcry, Cyprus suspends its citizenship for cash programme

Good riddance:

Cyprus said it was suspending a controversial citizenship for investment programme on Tuesday following reports of abuses of a system that gives the rich a passport and visa-free travel throughout the EU.

Criticism of the programme reached a head after the Al Jazeera network secretly filmed a state official, a lawmaker and a lawyer apparently attempting to help an imaginary Chinese investor – with a criminal record – get a passport.

A criminal record should disqualify a candidate.

Several news outlets, including Reuters, have carried reports in the past two years on a scheme where thousands of foreign investors with deep pockets have leapfrogged over normally arduous citizenship processes, including for persons born on the island.

Parliamentary speaker Demetris Syllouris, seen in the video apparently offering to use his influence in getting the investor a passport – and suggesting alternatives if that failed – said he would be standing down from his duties from Oct. 19.

Syllouris, 67, is the second highest-ranking state official in Cyprus after President Nicos Anastasiades. He said he would withdraw until an investigation was complete.

“I would like to publicly apologise for this unpleasant image conveyed to the Cypriot public… And any upset it may have caused,” he said in a statement.

Syllouris has previously said he suspected something was amiss with the imaginary investor but was fishing for information. He said the reports were “staged” and out of context.

The suspension of the programme, in its current form, would take effect from Nov. 1, government spokesman Kyriakos Koushos told journalists after an emergency session of the island’s cabinet.

For a minimum investment of 2 million euros, the scheme would guarantee visa-free travel in the European Union, which Cyprus joined in 2004.

Criticised as opaque and fraught with the risk of money-laundering, the scheme is popular with Russians, Ukrainians and, more recently, Chinese and Cambodians.

The persons filmed in the documentary claimed entrapment and said they had reported the matter to authorities months ago.

Reuters reported in October 2019 that Cambodians close to long-time leader Hun Sen, plus family members, had acquired passports, leading authorities to review the programme.

Another report by Al Jazeera in August this year said at least 60 individuals who acquired citizenship between 2017 and 2019 were high risk, and would probably not have qualified with new tighter rules since introduced.

At the time, authorities dismissed that report as “propaganda”, focussing instead on trying to find the whistleblower.

Exclusive: Cyprus sold passports to criminals and fugitives

Not surprising given earlier stories and the kinds of people these programs can attract:

Convicted fraudsters, money launderers and political figures accused of corruption are among dozens of people from more than 70 countries who have bought so-called “golden passports” from Cyprus, according to a large cache of official documents obtained by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit.

The Cyprus Papers is a leak of more than 1,400 passport applications approved by the government of the island nation between 2017 and 2019, and it raises serious questions about the Cyprus Investment Programme.

Passports from the Republic of Cyprus can be important for individuals from countries that have restricted access to Europe, as Cyprus is a member of the European Union (EU) and a passport offers its holder access to free travel, work and banking in all 27 member states.

In the coming days, Al Jazeera will reveal the identities of dozens of people who acquired Cypriot citizenship who, according to the country’s own rules, in many cases should not have received a passport.

Security risk

To apply for a Cypriot passport, applicants must invest at least 2.15m euros ($2.5m) in the Cypriot economy, usually by buying real estate, and have a clean criminal record.

However, applicants provide their own proof of eligibility, and although Cyprus claimed to check applicants’ backgrounds, the documents obtained by Al Jazeera prove that this did not always happen.

Since its inception in 2013, the programme has received repeated criticism from the EU, which has called for it to be closed down.

“It’s high value for everyone who comes from a country where there’s a lot of dirty money involved”, German MEP Sven Giegold, a strong critic of the programme, told Al Jazeera.

“You open a bank account, a business relationship and less questions asked, no visa requirements, easier to get access to get everywhere to travel than if you are from Russia, China or even more doubtful countries.”

Since 2013, when the passport programme started, the country has made more than 7 billion euros ($8bn), used to keep afloat the nation’s failing economy.

Burisma and Gazprom officials

Between 2017 and 2019, the countries with the highest number of people applying were Russia, China and Ukraine.

Among the approved applications seen by Al Jazeera was Ukrainian tycoon Mykola Zlochevsky, owner of the giant Burisma energy company.

When Zlochevsky bought his Cypriot passport in 2017, he was already under investigation for corruption in his home country.

In June 2020 Ukrainian prosecutors said they were offered $6m in cash to drop the investigation.

Zlochevsky and Burisma deny any knowledge of the bribe.

Like many on wanted lists in their home country, Zlochevsky’s Cypriot passport allows him to live beyond the reach of Ukrainian law enforcement.

A similar application came from Russian national Nikolay Gornovskiy, former boss of the state-owned energy giant Gazprom.

Gornovskiy was already on Russia’s wanted list for abuse of power when Cyprus approved his passport in 2019 and has so far thwarted all attempts to extradite him.

Other applications were approved even after the applicant had been arrested and sometimes even served their time in prison.

Ali Beglov, a Russian national, bought his passport despite serving a prison sentence for extortion, which should not have been possible according to Cyprus’s rules.

Chinese businessman Zhang Keqiang also received a Cypriot passport, despite having spent time in prison for a fraudulent share deal.

Vietnamese businessman Pham Nhat Vu’s passport was approved a month after he was charged with giving millions of dollars in bribes in a telecoms deal.

He is now serving three years in jail.

According to Laure Brillaud, Senior Policy Officer with Transparency International, an NGO focused on combatting international corruption, these results are worrying but not surprising.

“These programmes bear inherent risks of money laundering, corruption and tax evasion. They were designed to attract people just looking for a fast track to the EU,” she told Al Jazeera.

Stricter rules

In May 2019, Cyprus introduced tougher rules on who was eligible for citizenship, which banned anyone under investigation, wanted, convicted or under international sanctions from buying a passport.

Cypriot parliamentarians in July finally passed a law that gave the country the power to remove citizenship after several scandals involving notorious golden passport investors, but politicians voted against any move to publish the names of those who buy Cypriot citizenship.

The new stricter law applies to anyone who commits a serious crime, is wanted by Interpol or subject to sanctions in the 10 years after they bought their passport.

Cyprus is reviewing all past applications and announced about 30 unnamed people face losing citizenship, but The Cyprus Papers reveal many more may fall foul of the new law.

They include people such as Venezuelan Leonardo Gonzalez Dellan, an ex-banker, who was sanctioned by the United States for laundering millions in illegal currency deals for the Venezuelan government.

Another person who could lose his passport is Oleg Bakhmatiuk, under investigation in Ukraine for embezzlement and money laundering relating to his giant agricultural firm.

He called the charges “a complete fabrication and politically motivated”.

Although Bakhmatiuk told Al Jazeera the proceedings against him had ended with the charges dropped, the country’s official prosecutor confirmed he is still on Ukraine’s wanted list.

Embezzlement and money laundering

Some other examples of passport holders facing serious charges are Russian brothers Alexei and Dmitry Ananiev, who bought citizenship in 2017.

They are accused in Russia of embezzling from the bank they once owned.

Another person who received Cypriot citizenship is Chinese national Li Jiadong, who was sanctioned by the US for laundering $100m in cryptocurrency related to North Korean hackers.

Lastly, there are Maleksabet Ebrahimi and his son Mehdi, who are both on Interpol’s most-wanted list for money laundering and fraud in Iran and facing similar charges in Canada.

Maleksabet Ebrahimi denies the charges against him and says he complied at all times with Iranian and Cypriot laws.

‘Cyprus should be ashamed’

In response to questions from Al Jazeera, Cypriot Member of Parliament Eleni Mavrou said: “The way the programme was implemented the last few years was obviously a procedure that allowed cases for which the Republic of Cyprus should be ashamed.”

“I believe that the new regulations will not leave room for foul play or for stepping over the boundaries that a state should respect,” she added.

The Minister of the Interior, Nicos Nouris told Al Jazeera: “No citizenship was granted in violation of the regulations in force at the given time.”

Source: Exclusive: Cyprus sold passports to criminals and fugitives

New EU Citizenship Rule Could Force This ‘Fugitive’ Kenyan Billionaire To Return Home & Face The Music

Will likely be other cases as Cyprus is forced to review its citizenship-by-investment program and who it benefitted:

A new rule on dual citizenship by the European Union (EU) may soon leave ‘fugitive’ Kenyan billionaire, Humphrey Kariuki, with no other option but to return home and face the music.

The Kenyan billionaire who owns Africa Spirits and Wines of the World appeared to have fled Kenya with his wife, Stella Nasike, and found refuge in Cyprus while being probed for tax evasion to the tune of KES 41 Bn (USD 410 Mn).

But Kariuki, who holds dual citizenship from Cyprus, may soon have nowhere to run to after Cyprus with pressure from European Union decided to reconsider his Cypriot passport.

Kariuki was in the news for the wrong reasons early this year after the Director of Criminal Investigations, George Kinoti, led detectives in a major raid at his factories located in Thika where over a million bottles of assorted alcoholic drinks and 24,000 counterfeit excise stamps were seized.

However, when a warrant of arrest against him was issued, Kariuki was nowhere to be seen forcing Kinoti to seek Interpol’s help in arresting the billionaire businessman who was out of the country at the time. It later came to the fore, albeit shockingly, that the wanted man also had Cypriot citizenship.

With the Cypriot citizenship, Kariuki was pretty much untouchable. And that’s because a Cypriot passport enables one to do business throughout the European Union since Cyprus is a member.

However, Cyprus’ investor citizenship come under scrutiny of late, drawing criticism from other EU member countries and Transparency International (TI).

The groups fear that the country’s investor citizenship policies could turn it into a “gateway to Europe for corrupt people and money laundering”, as contained in TI’s August report.

Cyprus has been under pressure from the EU to tighten entry of foreigners into the scheme. And it looks like Cyprus is finally bowing to pressure.

As gathered by The Politis, The Kenyan billionaire and his spouse are among 26 investors identified by Cypriot authorities who may lose their Cypriot passports due to strict citizenship rules introduced by the European tax haven as part of a review of the 2013 policy that granted a passport to anybody who invested at least USD 2.2 Mn in the local economy.

According to various news agencies from Cyprus, the crackdown could be effected as soon as the end of this month, leaving Kariuki — who has since 2016 had dual citizenship — to only have a Kenyan passport.

Joining Kariuki on the list of prominent individuals that are soon to be ousted from their haven in Cyprus are Chinese national Zhang Shumin (reportedly linked to a gold scam), and Olag Deripaska (a Russian billionaire with ties to the Kremlin who was once Russia’s richest man).

Source: New EU Citizenship Rule Could Force This ‘Fugitive’ Kenyan Billionaire To Return Home & Face The Music

Cyprus Report Names Those At Risk of Stripped Citizenship

Another illustration of those most likely to be attracted by these schemes:

Cypriot outlet Politis on Wednesday published a list of 26 foreign investors and their family members from outside the EU whose Golden Visas it says are to be stripped by the Cyprus government. Earlier reports noted the nationality of the investors, but did not name names.

Cypriot passport cover. (Photo: Council of the European Union – PRADO [CC BY-SA 4.0]Perhaps the biggest name on the list is Malaysian Jho Taek Low, a fugitive wanted for his alleged role in the 1MDB scandal — the embezzlement scam uncovered in 2015, when Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister was accused of channelling over US$ 700 million from a government-run strategic development company, to his personal bank accounts. Since then, other players involved in the scheme (including, allegedly, Low) have been pursued by authorities.

Politis’s list adds more detail to the previously reported action the Cyprus government said it would take in light of October’s massive Reuters report on Cambodian elites and their Cypriot passports. The list includes eight Cambodians with political or familial ties to Cambodia’s current ruling party.

Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska, currently under US Treasury sanctions, is also on the Politis list. OCCRP in 2018 reported on his acquisition of Cypriot citizenship.

Also facing revocation of their Cypriot citizenship are multi-millionaire businessman Humphrey Kariuki and his wife. Kariuki has been charged in his home country of Kenya for tax evasion related to his alcohol production and distribution business, according to Kenyan news reports.

As well, there are two Russian bankers on the list who Crime Russia has previously noted are wanted in their home country on corruption charges.

OCCRP reporter Stelios Orphanides noted that the Cypriot government’s original reaction to investigations into the citizenship-for-investment scheme was to “attack the press in response instead of reconsidering this practice.”

He called the latest efforts to revoke the passports “part of an effort to control damage.”

“But now that the genie is out of the bottle, it will take much more than revoking 26 of the thousands of passports they extended to Golden Visa buyers for them to restore their battered credibility, especially given that its economy’s reliance on the sale of passports in the absence of transparency and accountability in all levels has grown stronger than ever,” he said.

Source: Cyprus Report Names Those At Risk of Stripped Citizenship

Cyprus to strip 26 ‘golden’ passports given to investors

Welcome move but one just highlights yet again the potential for abuse and fraud:

Cyprus said on Wednesday that it had started a process to strip 26 individuals of citizenship they received under a secretive passports-for-investment scheme, admitting it had flaws.

The Mediterranean island has been rattled by disclosures of its investments scheme since Reuters reported last month a list of Cambodian beneficiaries, including its police chief and finance minister.

“The council of ministers today affirmed the will of the government for strict adherence to the terms and conditions of the Cyprus investment programme,” the Cypriot interior minister, Constantinos Petrides, told reporters after a four-hour cabinet meeting.

Petrides did not disclose nationalities or identities of those affected, but said it “also concerned those” whose names were mentioned in media reports.

Cypriot sources said the group included nine Russians, eight Cambodians, five Chinese nationals, two Kenyans, one Malaysian and one Iranian.

They involved nine investment projects, whereby groups of foreign investors in partnership can benefit from the scheme.

Cyprus has had a citizenship for investment plan in place since 2013, under which a minimum 2 million-euro ($2.2 million) investment can buy a passport and visa-free travel throughout the European Union.

Advertising the scheme is now banned, but at least one law office used to distribute pamphlets resembling passports to visitors at the island’s main airport.

Authorities said the programme had gone through several transformations, and was overhauled in February 2019 with five different due-diligence layers, compared with one in 2013.

In the five years from the beginning of the citizenship scheme to 2018, the Cypriot government approved 1,864 citizenship applications. Including family members, the number was more than 3,200, and is close to 4,000 today.

“If there were nine investment cases, concerning 26 people, among 4,000 applications, it is logical that some would be problematic when controls weren’t strict,” Petrides said. “There were mistakes – it was a mistake not to have criteria, for instance, for high-risk persons.”

The Reuters investigation showed that influential police, business and political associates of Cambodia’s long-time ruler, the prime minister Hun Sen, had overseas assets worth tens of millions of dollars.

Hun has previously denied opposition allegations that members of his inner circle had other passports and lived the high life overseas. Some 70 percent of Cambodians live on $3 a day, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Petrides, whose ministry signs off on passport applications, said the individuals concerned had the right to appeal.

Source: Cyprus to strip 26 ‘golden’ passports given to investors

How relatives and allies of Cambodia’s ‘iron fist’ leader gained Cypriot citizenship

Long read with another reminder of the inherent corruption of citizenship-by-investment regimes:

Cambodia’s long-ruling prime minister, Hun Sen, had gathered athletes at his imposing office for a televised pep talk. “I don’t want to mention politics,” he began quietly.

But he couldn’t help himself. It was December 2017. The main opposition party had just been outlawed, the latest move in Hun Sen’s campaign to eradicate his political rivals. The United States and European Union were threatening sanctions, and Hun Sen had a message for them.

“Just do it now if you are brave enough,” he taunted, bristling with outrage. There was no point in the West trying to seize the foreign assets of Cambodian officials, he went on, because they “wouldn’t be so damn stupid as to keep their assets overseas.”

But a Reuters investigation shows that those closest to Hun Sen have done exactly that. Family members and key police, business and political associates have overseas assets worth tens of millions of dollars, and have used their wealth to buy foreign citizenship – a practice Hun Sen has decried as unpatriotic and at times has sought to outlaw.

Among those who have acquired or applied for European Union passports through a citizenship for sale arrangement in Cyprus are: Hun Sen’s niece and her husband, who is Cambodia’s national police chief; the country’s most powerful business couple, who are old family friends; and the finance minister, a long-time Hun Sen adviser.

Photos on social media also show Hun Sen’s relatives enjoying luxurious European lifestyles – boating in Capri, skiing in Verbier, partying in Ibiza – which are at odds with the prime minister’s self-styled image as the humble leader of ordinary Cambodians.

Hun Sen is 67 and has ruled Cambodia with an iron fist for more than three decades. He has jailed or exiled political rivals, shut down media outlets and crushed street protests. Only three men have controlled their countries for longer: the presidents of Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo. If Hun Sen stepped down tomorrow, Vladimir Putin would have to rule Russia for another 15 years to match his time in power.

Yet challenges remain for Hun Sen. Popular dissatisfaction still simmers, say political analysts. In February, responding to his crackdown, the European Union began a process that could suspend Cambodia’s special trade preferences, potentially damaging industries that employ hundreds of thousands of workers. The country’s political and business elite is on edge, a government insider told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Everyone is making an escape plan,” he said.

Hun Sen’s government didn’t respond to questions from Reuters for this article. Hun Sen’s relatives and associates also chose not to respond, with the exception of one member of the extended family. Hun Panhaboth, the son of another niece, defended his lifestyle in messages sent to Reuters through his Facebook page. An Instagram photo shows him driving a Mercedes while holding a fistful of banknotes. “I really don’t see the harm in that anyways,” he said.


One Cambodian with overseas assets is the prime minister’s niece, Hun Kimleng. Photos posted on Instagram by a family nanny helped lead Reuters to a posh apartment in central London, situated only a few hundred metres from the palace of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Hun Kimleng bought the apartment in 2010 for £1.95 million ($2.5 million), according to official property records. It could now be worth at least £3.5 million, estimates the real estate website Zoopla. She also owns a multi-million-dollar apartment in a luxury condo in Singapore, according to the Singapore Land Authority.

In 2016, she became a citizen of a foreign country: Cyprus.

Hun Sen has frequently denounced his political rivals for obtaining second passports, once declaring them “an escape route from difficulties in Cambodia.” His niece’s Cypriot citizenship is confirmed by a confidential document sent by Cyprus’s Ministry of Interior to its cabinet, which Reuters has seen.

Getting a Cypriot passport also makes the niece a citizen of the European Union, which Cyprus joined in 2004. This gives her the right to live, work and travel without visas in 28 EU countries.

Becoming a Cypriot isn’t cheap: It involves an investment of at least €2 million ($2.2 million). Between 2013 and 2018, the country granted citizenship to 3,200 foreigners under its Cyprus Investment Programme, raking in €6.6 billion.

The Cyprus interior ministry document confirming Hun Kimleng’s citizenship is dated 21 November 2017. It also recommends that the cabinet grant citizenship to her husband, Neth Savoeun, and two of their grown-up daughters. The cabinet always accepts the ministry’s recommendation, Cyprus’s interior minister told Reuters.

Neth Savoeun is Cambodia’s powerful national police chief, presiding over a force responsible for arresting Hun Sen’s political opponents and violently suppressing anti-government protests. Last year, Human Rights Watch named him as one of 12 generals who form “the backbone of an abusive and authoritarian political regime.” The Cambodian defense ministry called the report “fabricated.” Neth Savoeun is also a senior member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

That the country’s top cop has sought foreign citizenship could show that the party’s leaders are losing faith in each other, said Em Sovannara, an academic and political analyst in Phnom Penh. “It signals fragility in the ruling party,” he told Reuters.

Cambodia’s opposition has repeatedly alleged that Neth Savoeun and his family have foreign citizenship. In August, one opposition leader posted photos on Facebook of what he said were the family’s Cypriot passports. The post seemed to strike a nerve. The next day, the Cambodian National Police issued a statement, saying that Neth Savoeun would never “escape to another country, never betray the nation.”

In 2017, the U.S. State Department put Neth Savoeun, Hun Kimleng and their three children on a “visa blacklist” for undermining democracy, according to a U.S. official and another source. This means they can’t travel to the United States unless on official business. The State Department declined to comment.

Cyprus seems less strict. In the confidential document, the Cypriot interior minister urges the cabinet to grant citizenship to Neth Savoeun and two grown-up daughters, and notes that they have never visited Cyprus.

Under Cypriot law, the daughters are eligible for citizenship if they are “financially dependent” on the primary applicant, who in this case is their mother, Hun Kimleng. Yet one of the daughters named in the interior ministry document, Vichhuna Neth, 26, appears to be independently wealthy. In September 2017, three months before the interior ministry’s document was issued, she bought a London apartment near her mother’s, according to British property records. It has two floors and four bedrooms, and cost £5.5 million.

The Cyprus government didn’t respond to a Reuters request for comment about its decision to grant citizenship to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s relatives and allies, including a family blacklisted by the United States. Nor did it respond to questions about its vetting procedure for these prominent Cambodians.


The document detailing the citizenship of Hun Kimleng and her family is part of a tranche of interior ministry documents that Reuters has seen. These detail thousands of applications for Cypriot passports by wealthy foreigners.

The documents take the form of a letter, in which the interior minister summarizes an application for Cypriot citizenship and recommends the cabinet approve it. While the letter mentioning Hun Kimleng confirms she is a Cypriot citizen, the other letters are only recommendations. However, asked if any of his recommendations were rejected by the cabinet, Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides told Reuters: “No . . . Not to my knowledge.”

These documents show that other members of Hun Sen’s inner circle have also received or applied for Cypriot passports. They include Cambodia’s finance minister, Aun Pornmoniroth, a long-time financial adviser to Hun Sen. Aun’s wife also applied.

So did two of Hun Sen’s closest and wealthiest allies. Choeung Sopheap and her husband, Lau Ming Kan, created Pheapimex, a giant conglomerate. In a series of reports in the early 2000s, Global Witness, a London-based anti-corruption group, used aerial surveys and field inspections to document years of illegal logging by Pheapimex. Hun Sen has accused Global Witness of telling lies.

Another of Choeung and Lau’s companies was embroiled in the eviction of thousands of families from a development site in Phnom Penh; many of those who protested the evictions were beaten and jailed. Citing the evictions, the World Bank temporarily suspended new lending to Cambodia. Choeung and Lau didn’t respond to Reuters’ questions about their business activities.

Choeung and Lau are both in their seventies, and their family has business or marriage links to four of Hun Sen’s five children. Lau is a senator for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party. Choeung sits on the board of the Cambodian Red Cross. She is a close friend of the charity’s president – Hun Sen’s wife.

Choeung and Lau are also close to Cambodia’s security forces. Red envelopes of cash are traditionally handed out as gifts at Chinese New Year, an occasion the couple used to give money to thousands of soldiers, police and Hun Sen bodyguards who gathered outside their mansion in Phnom Penh, according to local media reports. One report quoted the couple’s son saying they had been making the mass donations for nearly a decade.

Choeung and Lau were issued with Cypriot passports in February 2017, Reuters reporting showed. Four of their five children also applied for Cypriot passports in the same year.

These prominent Cambodians all sought Cypriot citizenship during a turbulent period when Hun Sen’s grip on power seemed to be faltering. His recent troubles trace back to a general election in 2013. His ruling Cambodian People’s Party had long dominated the polls, but in 2013 it won only 68 of the national assembly’s 123 seats and 48% of the votes. It was Hun Sen’s worst showing in 15 years.

Turmoil ensued. Supporters of a resurgent opposition party spilled onto Phnom Penh’s streets to protest suspected election fraud, and only dispersed after military police opened fire and killed or injured dozens of people. The opposition leader was forced into exile and his successor put under house arrest. The party itself was dissolved.

Other critics were picked off in a wave of arrests and prosecutions, and one was silenced permanently: Kem Ley, a well-known activist, shot dead in broad daylight in July 2016. Police said he was killed by a man he owed money. The man confessed and is serving a life sentence.

The murder had a chilling effect on Cambodia’s embattled opposition. In 2018, with his rivals cowed or silenced, Hun Sen held another general election. This time, his party won 77% of the vote – and every single seat.

The United States called the election “the most significant setback yet” to Cambodian democracy. Hun Sen remained defiant. In a speech at the United Nations in Geneva in July 2019, he said the election had been “free, fair and just,” and called Cambodia a “land of freedom.”


For a wealthy global elite, it’s Cyprus’s freedoms that are appealing. The citizenship for sale programme took off in 2013 after a banking crisis almost wiped out Cyprus’s economy. The country’s economic woes forced it to seek a €10-billion international bailout and scramble to secure other forms of investment. The idea of the Cyprus Investment Programme was “to further encourage Foreign Direct Investment and to attract high net worth individuals to settle and do business in Cyprus,” according to the Ministry of Interior’s website.

Each applicant must invest at least €2 million in Cyprus. At least €500,000 must be invested permanently in property. The remainder can be invested in Cypriot companies, and need only be parked there temporarily. At no point in the application process is the applicant compelled to live in – or even visit – Cyprus.

A backlash against the scheme has grown. Some conservationists and other critics say it has fueled a property boom that has priced out ordinary Cypriots and harmed the environment. In a January report, the European Commission warned that what it called “golden passports” could help organised crime groups infiltrate Europe and raised the risk of money laundering, corruption and tax evasion.

The Cypriot government denied this, but has also tweaked the programme. Since May, applicants must keep the bulk of their investment in Cyprus for five years instead of three. They must also pay up to €150,000 to state agencies tasked with fostering innovation and building affordable homes. Some critics dismiss these measures as cosmetic, and are calling for more public scrutiny of who is applying, where their money comes from and who benefits from it in Cyprus. The government has resisted.


The Mediterranean resort town of Paphos is a two-hour drive from the capital. The highways and roads leading there are flanked by billboards erected by property developers and aimed at foreigners looking for residency or citizenship. “Invest in Cyprus, enjoy its benefits,” says one, in English and Chinese. On Paphos’s beaches, tourists sprawl across the burning sand or cool down in the Med’s azure shallows.

Not far inland, on the top floor of a Paphos low-rise, is a family law firm called Andreas Demetriades & Co. Between January 2013 and August 2018, its modest office processed 137 “citizenship by investment” applications worth hundreds of millions of euros to Cyprus.

This is according to a document from Cyprus’s interior ministry, which was shared with the country’s parliament and seen by Reuters. The company that has processed the most applications is the giant accounting firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers; it handled 184 applications during that period with what PwC Cyprus calls “robust client screening and acceptance processes.”

Andreas Demetriades & Co. was second. Demetris Demetriades, a senior partner, said the firm had processed “hundreds” of applications, but declined to confirm the interior ministry’s tally of 137 or talk about specific clients. Reuters reporting shows that his firm handled the applications of the Cambodian finance minister, Aun; the leading business couple, Choeung and Lau; and their family members.

Demetriades said most of his clients were “savvy investors” who wanted a Cypriot passport that gave them the freedoms of a European national. For some, the passport was also “an insurance policy.”

“Let’s admit it,” he said. “There are countries which have political instability – where people feel that their families and their business interests are in jeopardy. So it’s good for them to have something to fall back on should the worst happen.”

Demetriades said some of his clients were so-called “politically exposed persons” – people whose prominent positions in government or public life might make them vulnerable to corruption. “That doesn’t mean that they’re bad people,” he said. “It just means that you have to investigate further their source of funds.”

Where those funds end up in Cyprus is also hard to track. Business and property databases in Cyprus are often out of date, incomplete or closed to public access. But Reuters reporting turned up a company that served as an investment vehicle for foreigners seeking citizenship, including five of the Cambodians.

The company, called JWPegasus, was incorporated in Cyprus in May 2015 to help fund the construction of a Radisson Blu hotel in Larnaca, the country’s third-largest city.

A Reuters analysis showed that at least 22 of JWPegasus’ 26 shareholders have applied for Cypriot passports. Twenty of them applied through Andreas Demetriades & Co., the law firm. The five Cambodians among them include: Choeung; two of her children and the wife of Aun, the finance minister. Each invested at least €2 million.

JWPegasus described itself to Reuters as a “solid company” that has created hundreds of jobs. JWPegasus declined to comment on individual investors but said that, to its knowledge, none of them had “any illegal activities.” Radisson Blu said that its due diligence, carried out before doing business with JWPegasus, “did not reveal any suspicious activity at that time.”

Demetris Demetriades said he knew of JWPegasus but stressed that his law firm had no connection to it. He said he didn’t tell his clients which companies to invest in because his firm also did due diligence on those companies, which could create a conflict of interest. “Caesar’s wife must not only be honest, but must also look honest,” he said.


For some members of Cambodia’s elite, Cypriot passports are trappings of luxurious lifestyles that could undermine Prime Minister Hun Sen’s self-styled image as the humble leader of a party representing ordinary Cambodians.

Wealth is a touchy subject in Cambodia. The Asian Development Bank estimates that 70% of people live on about $3 a day, and Hun Sen has long projected himself as a leader who suffers alongside his poorest compatriots. Speaking at a factory near Phnom Penh in February, he said he didn’t have a second nationality or a house abroad, and chose instead “to eat grass with the Cambodian people.”

Yet many relatives with the Hun family name flaunt their wealth on social media accounts. One photo on Instagram shows two of the prime minister’s nieces, Hun Kimleng and Hun Chantha, posing in ballgowns and matching golden necklaces. Other photos document their near-constant travel, often by private jet, to fashion shows in Paris, a hillside villa in Mykonos, and London nightclubs like Loulou’s. Hun Chantha also co-owns London apartments worth £5 million, property records show.

Hun Panhaboth, the son of another niece, gave his girlfriend a Mercedes-Benz for her birthday, according to photos on Facebook. Most Cambodians were “happy and congratulated us,” Hun Panhaboth told Reuters. “I don’t think this gift makes Prime Minister Hun Sen look bad in any shape or form.”

And while the prime minister spoke about eating grass, Instagram showed some relatives feasting on caviar in London. Among them was Hun Kimleng’s wealthy young daughter, Vichhuna Neth. She applied for Cypriot citizenship in November 2017. Four months later, she posted photos and videos on Instagram from western Cyprus. They show her driving a dune buggy along a coastal road and reclining in an open-air jacuzzi at a luxury villa.

“Cyprus,” she gushed, “you’ve been AMAZING!!”

Source: How relatives and allies of Cambodia’s ‘iron fist’ leader gained Cypriot citizenship

Greece preparing citizenship by investment scheme similar to Cyprus’

More on competition among countries:

Local land developers but also service sector professionals are becoming concerned by reports that Greece’s new government is planning to launch a  citizenship by investment scheme similar to that of Cyprus.

The scheme provided by Nicosia in recent years has substantially contributed to the recovery of the Mediterranean island’s economy.

The new right-wing government under Kyriacos Mitsotakis is drafting its own citizenship by investment programme which resembles the Cypriot one and, thus, will be quite competitive, according to informed sources.

One source told Phileleftheros that the new programme is expected to be implemented after the first quarter of 2020 and may involve investments of €2.5 million. Cyprus’ investment limit is €2 million, plus VAT. In the case of Greece, the plan is for VAT payment to be deferred for a period of three years. This basically means that at the time of the investment the cost will essentially be the same as that in Cyprus.

Undoubtedly, the implementation of such a programme by Greece will create strong competition for Cyprus. Greece, as a brand name, is stronger and more versatile. So are some of its areas or islands as well. This means that far more investment opportunities will be on offer, especially in the sector of ​​land development. The areas that will fall under the scheme’s criteria have not been disclosed yet.

At the same time, as a larger country that has been in recession for many years it offers more investment opportunities, plus connectivity is also an important factor for foreign investors. Another advantage of Greece taken seriously in consideration by foreign investors is that one does not need a visa to travel to the US.

Source: Greece preparing citizenship by investment scheme similar to Cyprus’

EU citizenship for sale as Russian oligarch buys Cypriot passport | World news | The Guardian

Speaks for the inherent corruption of citizenship-by-investment programs:

The Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska has bought a Cypriot passport under a controversial scheme that allows rich investors to acquire citizenship and visa-free access to the European Union, the Guardian can reveal.

Deripaska, an aluminium magnate with connections to Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, is one of hundreds of wealthy individuals who have applied for Cypriot nationality. His application was approved last year.

The revelations will revive concern about oligarchs with Kremlin connections buying EU passports. Large numbers of the Russian and Ukrainian elite featured last year in a list of hundreds of people granted Cypriot citizenship over the past four years.

The island also offered citizenship to Viktor Vekselberg, a major shareholder in the Bank of Cyprus, the country’s biggest bank, documents show. Vekselberg appears to have turned the offer down. His spokesman said he only had Russian citizenship.

Deripaska and Vekselberg appeared on another list issued by the US Treasury in January of oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin. Deripaska has denied claims that he served as a back channel between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign, as an investigation by the special counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion continues.

The Cypriot documents seen by the Guardian and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) show that Deripaska’s first attempt to become a Cypriot citizen was unsuccessful.

Cyprus has been accused of failing to vet passport candidates vigorously enough, heightening concerns in EU circles about people being able to buy EU citizenship. On this occasion, however, Deripaska was asked to resubmit his case because of a preliminary inquiry into his affairs in Belgium. The inquiry was subsequently dropped in 2016.

Cyprus’s council of ministers sent Deripaska’s case back to the island’s interior ministry, the Cypriot documents say, asking it to investigate further. The oligarch’s naturalisation bid had to be re-examined before a final decision could be made.

Deripaska’s name was made public this week when an interior ministry document listing beneficiaries of the collective investment scheme was distributed inside Cyprus’s parliament. Clerks left it in a room used by journalists, and several picked up a copy.

Leaked documents show that the Cypriot “golden visa” scheme remains a lucrative source of revenue for the island, generating at least €4.8bn (£4.3bn). Cyprus has given citizenship to 1,685 “foreign investors” since 2008 – many from the former Soviet Union, and from China, Iran and Saudi Arabia – and 1,651 members of their families.

The finance ministry has previously said it carries out stringent checks on all citizenship by investment applications, with funds required to undergo money laundering controls by a Cypriot bank. Cyprus is not the only EU country to have granted citizenship to high net-wealth Russians, it says. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of beneficiaries.

Vekselberg’s Renova group is one of Russia’s biggest conglomerates. He made a major investment in the crisis-hit Bank of Cyprus in 2014, buying almost 10% of its stock. The move at a time when the island’s economy was depressed meant he was an “exceptional case deserving of honorary naturalisation”, the documents say.

Vekselberg’s spokesman, Andrey Shtorkh, said: “Mr Vekselberg has only one citizenship, of Russian Federation and was never granted any other citizenship including Cypriot.”

Cyprus made it easier for rich foreigners to gain citizenship in September 2016. It had previously required investors to have at least €5m in domestic assets, including real estate, firms and government bonds. Applicants could also take part in a collective investment scheme by spending a minimum of €12.5m, or €2.5m per person. The ruling council reduced the eligibility threshold to €2m and ditched collective schemes.

The fresh trove of scheme beneficiaries obtained by the Guardian and the OCCRP confirms the extent to which Cyprus’s citizen-by-investment programme has become a main avenue for Russian oligarchs who wish to get a European passport.

The Portuguese MEP Ana Gomes described the visa scheme as “absolutely perverse, immoral and increasingly alarming”. The European commission launched its own inquiry last year into citizenship-by-investment programmes in the EU. The outcome is expected to be revealed later this year.

Cyprus, along with Malta, is one of the countries under scrutiny. “Cyprus is the biggest European investor in Russia and a great number of Russian nationals acquired Cypriot passports. We are all aware that there is also a big problem of recycling money. The point is that Cyprus, like other countries, is not just selling its passport. It is marketing European citizenship,” Gomes said.

Naomi Hirst, a senior campaigner at Global Witness, said EU states that sell citizenship should carry out “the sharpest of checks” on applicants.

“The source of wealth and background of these individuals should be scrutinised,” she said. “If not, then the whole of the EU could be made vulnerable to those who will use these schemes as a ‘get out of jail free card’ to move freely around Europe.”

via EU citizenship for sale as Russian oligarch buys Cypriot passport | World news | The Guardian