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Controversial Cyprus passport scheme will not be replaced, says president

NICOSIA (Reuters) - A controversial citizenship-for-investment programme scrapped by Cyprus in late 2020 had shortcomings and will not be replaced, President Nicos Anastasiades said on Tuesday.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades prepares to testify during a deposition to the investigating committee on Cyprus passports in Nicosia, Cyprus February 2, 2021. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

Cyprus earned more than 9 billion euros ($10.8 billion) from a scheme awarding passports to foreign investors between 2013 and 2019, but the programme unravelled amid reports of abuse and EU misgivings.

Panned by critics as opaque and fraught with the risk of money-laundering, the scheme was popular with Russians, Ukrainians and, more recently, Chinese and Cambodians.

The east Mediterranean island terminated the plan in November 2020. More than 3,000 people benefited from the scheme, giving them visa-free travel across the European Union.

Several revisions made the plan the “strictest in Europe”, but it was plagued with weaknesses from its inception, Anastasiades told a board of inquiry.

“The gaps and weaknesses allowed some applicants and others to abuse it,” he said.

A former speaker of the island’s parliament resigned in October after the Al Jazeera network secretly filmed him and others allegedly offering to help a person with a criminal record obtain a passport.

Anastasiades, who testified for close to three hours, was not asked about that documentary, which triggered a public uproar. Last week he announced a package of measures to deal with corruption.

“There was an irrational promotion of the programme, giving the impression Cyprus was selling its passports,” he said. That promotion included exhibition stands and “adverts on luggage trolleys at airports” or in pamphlets shaped like passports.

Anastasiades said he had issued several warnings to stakeholders over a period of time that the programme could be suspended. The scheme would not be replaced.

“Other incentives will be offered for investments, but not with citizenship,” he said.

Anastasiades, whose own daughters are partners in a legal practice which was among many facilitating passport issuance with a minimum 2 million euro investment, denied any conflict of interest or that any members of his family may have benefited in an untoward manner from the scheme.

“These are just many of the myths I hear,” he said.

Reporting by Michele Kambas; Editing by Nick Macfie

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