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Cyprus officials implicated in plan to sell passport to criminals

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Several high-ranking Cypriot officials – including politicians, lawyers and real estate developers – are implicated in a scheme that allows criminals to buy a European passport using the country’s citizenship through an investment programme, an Al Jazeera investigation has found.

In The Cyprus Papers Undercover, Al Jazeera reveals how the country’s highest political ranks are willing to aid and abet convicted criminals to obtain Cypriot citizenship, granting the criminal access to the European Union’s internal markets and visa-free travel.

Among those are parliamentary speaker Demetris Syllouris and member of parliament, Christakis Giovanis (also known in Cyprus as Giovani), who is also one of the country’s largest real estate developers.

The revelation comes two months after Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit published The Cyprus Papers, a leak of 1,400 documents showing Cyprus regularly failed to adhere to its own laws and allowed convicted criminals and fugitives to obtain its citizenship.

Following the investigation, Cyprus defended the programme, saying there had been several mistakes in recent years but the tightening of laws and applicants’ background checks were sufficient to stop criminals from obtaining a passport.

Convicted Chinese businessman

Cyprus’s citizenship through investment programme grants a Cypriot passport to anyone who invests at least $2.5m in the country, often through real estate investments.

Since 2013, when the passport programme started, the country has made more than seven billion euros ($8bn). The amount is used to keep the nation’s failing economy afloat.

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Although legal, the programme has been criticised regularly by the European Union and anti-corruption NGOs, saying it has facilitated the laundering of stolen assets from Russia and beyond.

Using an undercover operative called Billy, who claimed to represent a Chinese investor sentenced to seven years in prison for money laundering, Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit gained access to some of the country’s highest-ranking politicians involved in the scheme.

From the start, Billy was open about the prison sentence, which would officially disqualify the non-existing applicant for the Cyprus Investment Programme (CIP).

However, Billy was told by a real estate developer all the way up to the speaker of parliament that the prison sentence would not be an issue as long as enough money was invested.

“That’s not the first to face this issue in Cyprus,” Andreas Pittadjis, a registered service provider for the CIP, told Billy. “I had a guy who was in custody for two years.  He was in prison for two years for corruption and money laundering. We had ways to justify everything and he went through with the approval of his passport application. He now has his visa waiting for him. No problems whatsoever.”

“Of course we can change his name. This is Cyprus.”

Pittadjis even suggested changing the name on the passport, which, in combination with the new passport, would allow a convicted criminal to assume a completely new identity.

“Of course we can change his name. This is Cyprus,” he said.

The lawyer’s comments were echoed by high-ranking politicians.

Syllouris and Giovani said they would do everything in their power to get Billy’s non-existing criminal employer a passport.

“It’s not easy. But I can promise, we shall do the best. And I believe we have the experience,” Giovani said.

Syllouris went even further, saying: “You can tell him that he will have, without mentioning my name or anybody else’s, full support from Cyprus. At any level – political, economic, social, everything – ok.”

Family applications

The citizenship through investment programme is popular with people from countries like Russia, China and Ukraine, granting them access to European markets while also offering an option to store their money offshore.

As a result, many businesses, such as the Giovani Group, a real estate developer founded by politician Giovani, cater specifically to wealthy investors.

Its executive director Antonis Antoniou, said Billy’s employer should look at investing more in Cyprus – up to 20 million euros – despite knowing he was a convicted criminal.

The more you invest, [the more] you are in more favourable terms. You can ‘skip the waiting list’, as we say.

“The more you invest you, [the more] you are in more favourable terms. You can ‘skip the waiting list’, as we say,” Antoniou told Al Jazeera’s undercover journalists.

Pittadjis explained that to solve any issues that could arise, applications are made through family members of those who are not allowed to apply themselves. The criminal, then, can apply later as a family member.

“I had a client who wanted to make an investment and couldn’t. But his wife could. I had another who couldn’t but his son could,” the lawyer said. “You cannot make problems disappear. You can solve them.”

‘System is broken beyond repair’

According to Laure Brillaud, Senior Policy Officer for anti-corruption NGO Transparency International EU, the footage shows that Cyprus’s citizenship through investment programme does not work.

“What all this shows is that it’s not just a few bad apples. It’s the system that is broken beyond repair,” Brillaud told Al Jazeera while calling on the EU to take action to change the passport schemes currently in place.

Response from those involved

In response to questions from Al Jazeera, Pittadjis said he understood from the outset what was proposed involved money laundering and criminal activities and that everything he did thereafter amounted to “fishing for more details”.

He also indicated that, a few days after Al Jazeera’s journalists left Cyprus and failed to provide him with a copy of the proposed applicant’s passport, he reported it to Cyprus’s anti-money laundering unit.

Giovani and Antonis Antoniou of the Giovani Group told Al Jazeera they shared their suspicions regarding the proposed applicant with Pittadjis.

They said their dealings with our undercover journalists were intended to gather information to support a report to the authorities without “tipping them off”.

Syllouris said that he provided no services to the applicant and referred to the anti-money laundering report subsequently made by Pittadjis.

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Child labour rising in Ghana and Ivory Coast’s cocoa farms: Study

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Children doing hazardous work has gone up in the world’s top coca producers, a US government study found.

The use of child labour has risen in cocoa farms in Ghana and Ivory Coast during the past decade despite industry promises to reduce it, academics said on Monday, largely supporting earlier findings that were questioned by both states.

The prevalence of children doing hazardous work, including using sharp tools, has also gone up in the world’s top two cocoa producers, according to the study funded by the United States government.

The levels were higher than in 2010 when companies including Mars, Hershey, Nestle and Cargill agreed to reduce the worst forms of child labour in Ghana and Ivory Coast’s cocoa sectors by 70 percent by 2020.

The two West African countries – which together produce about two-thirds of the world’s cocoa – had both questioned the methodology used in an earlier version of the report prepared by researchers from the University of Chicago and seen by Reuters News Agency in April.

Ghana again questioned the data in the new report, released on Monday after the US Department of Labor appointed a group of independent experts to conduct a review.

Mars said in a statement that it had committed $1bn to a responsible sourcing strategy and called for legislation to address the root causes of child labour on West African cocoa farms.

Hershey and Nestle referred Reuters to the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) industry group. Cargill did not respond to a request for comment.

Monday’s report cut the estimate of the number of children currently working in cocoa production in the two countries to 1.56 million, from more than two million in the April study, saying it had changed the ways it weighted its data. It did not give comparative totals from 10 years earlier.

‘Complexity and scale’

But it said the proportion of children from agricultural households in cocoa-growing areas that are engaged in child labour in the cocoa sector across Ivory Coast and Ghana had increased to 45 percent in 2018/19 from 31 percent in 2008/09.

The corresponding levels for hazardous work had risen to 43 percent from 30 percent, it added.

“Despite the efforts made by the governments, industry and other key stakeholders in combating child labour and hazardous child labour during the past 10 years, the child labour and hazardous child labour prevalence rates did not go down,” the report said.

It added that rates of child labour had stabilised since the last survey in 2013/14 and school attendance in cocoa-growing areas had risen even as cocoa production surged.

Children from cocoa areas arrive for checking at a police station during an operation to rescue children from child traffickers in Aboisso, Ivory Coast [File: Luc Gnago/Reuters]

WCF president Richard Scobey said the report showed child labour remains a persistent challenge but that government and company programmes to reduce it were making a difference.

“Targets to reduce child labour were set without fully understanding the complexity and scale of a challenge heavily associated with poverty in rural Africa and did not anticipate the significant increase in cocoa production over the past decade,” he added in a statement.

The International Cocoa Initiative (ICI), a foundation backed by industry and civil society, said what it called past sampling errors made it difficult to draw accurate comparisons over time.

Ghana’s government was quoted in Monday’s report questioning the reliability of the figures that showed a reduction in the number of child labourers from the April estimate, while maintaining a similar prevalence rate.

“This raises eyebrows about the reliability of the findings for any meaningful policy formulation and implementation,” Ghana’s ministry of employment and labour relations said.

Ivory Coast welcomed the revised results and both countries reiterated their commitment to eradicating child labour in cocoa farming.

US legislators have criticised the industry and US customs authorities asked cocoa traders earlier this year to report where and when they encounter child labour in their supply chains.

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Eyeing China, Australia joins ‘Quad’ drill with US, Japan, India

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Military exercises set to take place in Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea are likely to upset China.

Australia will take part in large-scale military exercises off the coast of India next month that will bring together a quartet of countries concerned by rising Chinese influence.

India, Japan, the United States and – for the first time since 2007 – Australia will take part in this November’s Malabar naval exercise, a move that is likely to lead to protests from China.

Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said late on Monday that the drills were about  “demonstrating our collective resolve to support an open and prosperous Indo-Pacific” – a allusion to countering China’s power.

India’s Ministry of Defence said the naval drill would take place in the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, which has been a hotspot for Indo-Chinese strategic competition.

Over the last few decades, China has tried to significantly increase influence in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh, prompting acute concern in New Delhi.

The drill comes at a time of diplomatic tensions between China and Australia, economic tensions between China and the US and military tensions between China and India.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne ahead of the ‘Quad’ meeting of four Indo-Pacific nations’ foreign ministers [Charly Triballeau/Pool via AFP]

India and China have poured tens of thousands of troops into a remote Himalayan border zone since fighting a pitched battle in June in which 20 Indian troops and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers were killed.

The so-called “Quad” has been touted as a means of countering Chinese influence – including a decades-long investment in modernising its army.

But the grouping has often faltered amid disagreements about how much to confront, contain or engage Beijing.

A renewed push to develop the Quad into a formal counterbalance to China included talks between foreign ministers in Tokyo earlier this month.

At that meeting, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Asian allies to unite against China’s “exploitation, corruption and coercion” in the region.

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Muted microphones for Thursday’s final US presidential debate

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Organisers say the move will avoid the chaos of last month’s first encounter, when Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden.

US President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden will have their microphones muted for parts of their final debate on Thursday to allow each candidate a block of uninterrupted time to speak and avoid the rancour of the two candidates’ first encounter.

The Commission on Presidential Debates, the sponsor of the televised debate in Nashville, said changes were necessary after the bad-tempered first debate.

Trump repeatedly interrupted Biden during the encounter in Cleveland on September 29, and the discussion ended up in name-calling and insults.

“We realize, after discussions with both campaigns, that neither campaign may be totally satisfied with the measures announced today,” the commission said in a statement. “We are comfortable that these actions strike the right balance and that they are in the interest of the American people, for whom these debates are held.”

For this week’s 90-minute debate, the organisers will give each candidate two minutes of uninterrupted time at the beginning of each 15-minute segment of the debate. NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker will moderate.

“The only candidate whose microphone will be open during these two-minute periods is the candidate who has the floor under the rules,” the commission said.

US President Donald Trump frequently interrupted rival Joe Biden in the first debate on September 29 [File: Brian Snyder/Reuters]

Trump’s campaign objected to the change, but said he would still take part.

“President Trump is committed to debating Joe Biden regardless of last-minute rule changes from the biased commission in their latest attempt to provide advantage to their favoured candidate,” campaign manager Bill Stepien said.

The commission is a non-partisan body.

The Biden campaign did not immediately respond to a Reuters’ request for comment on the latest developments.

Uninterrupted time

Trump’s camp is also unhappy with Thursday’s proposed topics, which include families, climate change and race, arguing that the discussion should focus more on foreign policy.

Biden’s campaign said both sides has previously agreed to let the moderators choose the subjects. It said Trump wanted to avoid discussing his stewardship of the coronavirus pandemic, which surveys show is the top issue for voters.

“As usual, the president is more concerned with the rules of a debate than he is getting a nation in crisis the help it needs,” Biden spokesman TJ Ducklo said.

Trump, who was admitted to hospital with COVID-19 in early October, backed out of the second scheduled debate, which was supposed to take place last Thursday, because it would have been in a virtual format. Instead, the two men broadcast rival town-hall sessions.

With just two weeks before the presidential election on November 3, Biden has a strong lead nationwide, although the race is closer in some key states.

More than 30 million people have already cast their ballot through early voting.

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