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Al Jazeera reveals how Cyprus sold passports to criminals

Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit has obtained a substantial leak of passport data that reveals serious flaws at the heart of Cyprus’s controversial ‘golden passport’ scheme that has raised billions of dollars from the sale of citizenship to the world’s wealthiest and most secretive individuals. Many are under criminal investigation, international sanctions or serving prison sentences.

The Investigative Unit (I-Unit) has reviewed applications for the country’s Cyprus Investment Programme (CIP) from more than 2,500 people between 2017 and 2019 and discovered that many breach Cyprus’s own rules on acquiring Cypriot citizenship.

The Cyprus Papers contains the names of a thousand high net worth Russians, many with powerful connections to the Kremlin, alongside 500 Chinese nationals, all prepared to pay millions of dollars for a EU passport. In total Cyprus sold passports to 74 nationalities in that period.

It reveals that Cyprus sold passports to more than 30 people who are either facing criminal charges, are convicted or under international sanctions. A further 40 successful applicants held sensitive political or state positions, known as politically exposed persons or PEPs, which means they are considered a serious risk for bribery or money laundering under EU and Cypriot guidelines. They all bought passports before Cyprus tightened its rules in May 2019.

German MEP Sven Giegold, a prominent campaigner for tougher anti-money laundering laws across Europe, told Al Jazeera: ‘ The European Parliament is very clear that citizenship is not for sale. Citizenship shouldn’t be a commodity’. He described the findings of The Cyprus Papers as ‘highly worrying. These passport regimes are a security risk for Europe.’

The Cyprus Papers reveal the details of a prominent hacker wanted for a multi-billion dollar crypto-currency heist who was cleared for a Cypriot passport. Another businessman was the defendant in a televised bribery trial and still managed to buy a Cypriot passport despite being sent to jail. A South American banker was approved for Cypriot citizenship just four days before the U.S. declared him a kingpin in a $2.4 billion illicit currency scam. 

Another category in The Cyprus Papers includes those we are not naming for their own safety. That applies to a woman whose relative was secretly abducted from Hong Kong by Chinese security agents.

And several names from Saudi Arabia were redacted. Applications for Cypriot passports from the kingdom have increased since the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who’s been implicated in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

They include a member of the bin Laden family, whose business empire has been effectively confiscated by the Crown Prince, as well as a relative of one of the hundreds of wealthy Saudis detained without charge at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh until they paid for their release.

The government of Cyprus told Al Jazeera it tightened up the Cyprus by Investment rules in 2019 and stressed that “no citizenship was granted in violation of the regulations in force, at the given time.”

The full list will be available from 11.00 GMT on Sunday at