Big Story 10

Portugal interior minister resigns over 'golden visa' probe

LISBON (Reuters) - Portugal’s interior minister resigned on Sunday over an investigation into alleged corruption linked to the issuing of so-called “golden visas” to wealthy foreigners, but denied wrongdoing and said the move was to save damage to the government.

The police have arrested several high-ranking officials, including the head of the country’s immigration and border service, under the investigation. Searches were carried out last week at several locations, including the interior ministry.

Minister Miguel Macedo had faced increasing pressure due to reports that he is a partner in a company that has been identified in the investigation.

Macedo held a televised press conference on Sunday evening to explain his resignation, saying the investigation had diminished his authority as minister, even though he had no involvement in the visas.

“I want to say that I have no administrative involvement whatsoever in the attribution of visas,” he said. “In other words, I have no personal responsibility of anything that is under investigation ... I have resigned to defend the government.”

He did not say if he had any involvement in an outside company. He said Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho had accepted his resignation.

The Prosecutor General’s office said last week there were suspicions of corruption, influence peddling and money-laundering in the investigation.

The golden visa program was launched by the government in late 2012 during the country’s debt crisis and gave residency permits to non-EU citizens who invested in real estate.

It has brought in more than 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion), mainly from Chinese buyers willing to invest more than 500,000 euros in real estate. Neighboring Spain and some other EU countries have similar programs. {ID:nL5N0J20GQ]

The Portuguese permits allow foreigners to travel within Europe’s 26-country Schengen free trade zone without restriction.

Opposition politicians have long argued that the scheme may open the way to criminals and stoke corruption. The government has insisted its checks of applicants meet EU standards, but in June acknowledged it was investigating corruption allegations linked to the program.

Portugal has issued the visas to around 1,500 people, most of them Chinese, as well as citizens of Russia, Brazil, Angola and other countries.

(1 US dollar = 0.8022 euro)

Editing by David Holmes