Top Cyprus prosecutor asks police to probe cash-for-passport scandal

FILE PHOTO: A person holds an image of a passport during a protest against corruption outside the Filoxenia Conference Center, currently hosting Cyprus parliament, in Nicosia, Cyprus October 14, 2020. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

NICOSIA (Reuters) - The top prosecutor in Cyprus has asked police to investigate possible criminal offences in the running of a cash-for-passports scheme after an official probe suggested thousands of passports may have been wrongly issued to rich foreigners.

The east Mediterranean island awarded citizenship to 6,779 people between 2007 and 2020, the vast majority of them Russians, under the now discredited scheme.

An independent board of inquiry led by a former chief justice noted in an interim report last month that 51% of passports went to people who should not have qualified.

The entire interim report was handed over to police, the island's Legal Service said in a statement on Friday.

"Instructions were given to start an investigation to determine any possible criminal offences, based on the interim report, where appropriate."

The voluminous report found that the island's Cabinet rubber-stamped citizenship requests despite a possible conflict of interest by some members because of either family or professional links to proxies of applicants. It also made a recommendation that citizenship be rescinded in up to 66 cases.

Cyprus scrapped the scheme late last year after disclosures that not only did bona fide investors benefit from it but also fugitives from justice or politically connected persons from otherwise impoverished nations with pockets deep enough to stump up a minimum 2 million euros ($2.41 million) for citizenship.

The European Commission launched infringement procedures against Cyprus over the scheme last year, arguing that granting EU citizenship for pre-determined payments, without any genuine link to the state, undermined the integrity of EU citizenship.

Cyprus abandoned the scheme after the Al Jazeera network secretly filmed the then parliamentary speaker allegedly promising to facilitate issuance of a passport to a fictitious investor with a criminal record. The speaker, Demetris Syllouris, who has since resigned, strongly denied any wrongdoing, saying any remarks were taken out of context.

(Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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