Cyprus begins moves to revoke 'golden passports'

Photo illustration of a Cypriot passport. (Reuters photo)

Cyprus began moves on Wednesday to revoke 26 "golden passports", a minister said, after an investigation into possible violations of the EU member's citizenship-for-investment scheme.

The measures follow an outcry over media reports that family members and allies of Cambodia's strongman premier Hun Sen had used the programme to obtain Cypriot citizenship.

Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides said the cabinet would launch a "process of withdrawal of citizenship" from 26 people, without mentioning their names.

The Mediterranean island's government faced intense pressure after news agency Reuters reported that top Cambodian officials had obtained passports in 2016 and 2017.

Those named include police chief Neth Savoeun, whose force Reuters accused of "arresting Hun Sen's political opponents and violently suppressing anti-government protests".

It also reported that the top cop, his wife Hun Kimleng -- the prime minister's niece -- and their three children were on a US "visa blacklist" for undermining democracy.

This week, Cypriot daily Politis reported that Malaysian businessman Jho Low had also been granted a Cypriot passport after buying a luxury villa in the resort of Ayia Napa.

He is accused of being the key player in a multi-billion-dollar theft from a Malaysian state investment fund.

He has denied wrongdoing and his location is unknown.

Cyprus has faced pressure from Brussels to reform its citizenship-for-investment scheme, which the European Commission has said may help organised crime gangs infiltrate the bloc.

In February Nicosia updated its criteria, imposing more stringent due diligence procedures.

Petrides told reporters Wednesday that the cabinet was determined to "strictly adhere" to the criteria, which were now "much stronger".

Cyprus began offering citizenship in exchange for investment following the island's 2013 economic crisis.

Under the latest rules, it grants a passport in exchange for an investment of 2.5 million euros ($2.8 million).

The scheme, launched in the aftermath of a 2013 bailout crisis, has granted 1,864 citizenships, bringing in billions of euros.

"This scheme helped the country in a particularly difficult time," Petrides said. But he admitted that "mistakes were made".

All the cases under scrutiny were processed before tougher criteria were introduced.

The government does not release the names of those granted passports through the scheme. Petrides said those whose passports were revoked could appeal.

Cyprus, an EU member since 2004, is one of three EU states -- alongside Malta and Bulgaria -- to run a scheme selling citizenship.

Main opposition communist party AKEL has urged the government to come clean over its passport scheme which it says has tarnished the country's reputation. 

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