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Cyprus’s dirty secrets | European Union

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It was a typically chilly December morning in the Vietnamese capital. A phalanx of press had gathered outside the formidable Hanoi People’s Court; a grand, white, pillared structure that was the venue for the trials of senior Communist Party officials accused of malfeasance, with all the proceedings televised.

It looked like 66-year-old former Minister of Information Nguyen Bac Son might become the latest to be ensnared in the government’s sweeping anti-corruption campaign, and the press was watching as he was ushered into the court by family.

Son was a powerful figure in the Vietnamese government from 2011 to 2016. Late last year, after a two-week trial, he was jailed for life for receiving a $3m bribe in a deal involving state-owned telecoms firm MobiFone and private pay television firm Audio Visual Global JSC (AVG). He was spared the death penalty only because his family paid the money back to the state.

Earlier, a quieter entrance had been made by the man who gave the bribe, former AVG Chairman Pham Nhat Vu. Bespectacled and balding, he gripped a microphone and spoke intently, as if from a script. Prosecutors said Vu had actively cooperated with the authorities in the investigation, and he duly confirmed that he had paid $3m to Son.

Vu cut an unimpressive figure in court. He did not look like someone who was part of a global elite and could, if not incarcerated, travel and settle anywhere he chose.

But Vu has powerful backers. His brother Pham Nhat Vuong is the richest man in Vietnam. Letters appealing for clemency for Vu were sent by the powerful Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, the Vietnamese Red Cross Society and the Russian ambassador. His sentence was just three years in jail.

Vu came to the attention of Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit for a different reason altogether. Shortly before his court appearance, he had been granted a passport by the Republic of Cyprus.

A ‘golden’ passport

Pham Nhat Vu is one of thousands who paid to receive Cypriot citizenship under a citizenship-by-investment scheme, and features on the list of those revealed in The Cyprus Papers, a huge leak of official documents obtained by the Investigative Unit.

The Cypriot government has long considered what is today known as the Cyprus Investment Programme (CIP) to be a major revenue stream – some estimates say it has generated about $8bn – and it is no surprise that it was ramped up in 2013 following the worst financial crisis in the Mediterranean country’s history.

For those with money to spare, the advantages that come with a “golden” Cypriot passport are clear: the ability to deposit their money in European bank accounts and live, work and travel freely not only in Cyprus, but across all 27 European Union nations, and visa-free travel to 176 countries – all at the “reasonable” price of a minimum investment of about $2.5m, most of which must be spent on real estate.

The Cyprus Papers

The Investigative Unit has researched some 2,500 people named in The Cyprus Papers who appear in more than 1,400 applications for citizenship, as principle applicants or family members. Individuals have been named only when there is clear evidence that the person has been involved in wrongdoing or when he or she is a public official who would no longer be eligible for citizenship under a new set of rules Cyprus introduced in 2019.

The largest number of applicants – 1,000 – is from Russia, followed by 500 Chinese nationals, just over 100 from Ukraine, and 350 from the Middle East.

They represent a range of ages and professions but, in every case, they have acquired substantial wealth, sometimes by questionable means.

 

What stood out in the investigation is that Pham Nhat Vu is among dozens of applicants who would not be accepted had they applied for passports today and had their applications received appropriate scrutiny.

The CIP was introduced in 2016 and replaced an earlier citizenship-by-investment scheme. It included new financial criteria for those wishing to obtain citizenship, lowering the required investment by more than $1m. Like its predecessor, it required applicants to possess a “clean criminal record” but failed to define what that meant.

It appeared to not exclude those involved in criminal proceedings or under investigation, and many of the applicants appearing in The Cyprus Papers had applied as they were about to be convicted of a crime.

The Cypriot government is required by its own regulations to conduct follow-up checks in the Europol and Interpol databases. In practice, however, it was up to the applicants themselves to submit their own background checks from authorities in their home nations. The rejection rate was surprisingly low, just two percent of applications between 2013 and 2018.

One individual with a conviction for extortion 16 years earlier was classified as having a “clean criminal record”. This poses the question of whether the criminal record of a man who is now part of Russian high society was overlooked – or whether it was considered expunged.

Businessmen, politicians, billionaires

On a cold December evening in 2015, St Petersburg’s fashionable elite had gathered for a party. Among the glittering guests were famous television host Ivan Urgant and socialite Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of the first democratically elected mayor of the city and his wife, a member of the Russian Senate.

They were there to celebrate the birthday of a nine-year-old boy, the youngest son of Ali Beglov, who spent $500,000 on the bash.

Beglov, a burly man with tightly cropped hair, is also known as “Alik Tartarin”, a moniker from his days in the St Petersburg underworld. He had served a two-year sentence in jail from 1990 to 1992 for extortion.

The conviction did not prevent Beglov from acquiring a Cypriot passport, nor did it preclude him from ascending to the highest circles of power in Russia.

From 1999 to 2016, Beglov was general director of a subsidiary of Russia’s second-largest oil and gas corporation, Lukoil, which manages oil storage units in 35 ports across Russia and abroad, generating net profits of one billion roubles a year ($13.2m).

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Months before Beglov’s lavish party for his nine-year-old, a newly formed dairy company run by his older son set up office in the regional headquarters of Lukoil on the riverfront in St Petersburg. A year later, the company was already supplying dairy products to Russia’s Constitutional Court, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the State Duma, and the Federation Council.

In neighbouring Ukraine, where the notoriously corrupt presidency of Viktor Yanukovich was overthrown in the Euromaidan revolution of 2014, the elite were also eager to get Cypriot passports.

Among them was Mykola Zlochevsky, who has been accused of abusing his position as Yanukovich’s minister of ecology and natural resources to benefit his energy company, Burisma Holdings – based in Kyiv but notably registered in Cyprus – to gain preferential access to Ukrainian natural-resource extraction licenses.

Burisma made headlines in the United States after it emerged that former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, had joined its board of directors while his father was in charge of the US’s Ukraine policy.

Zlochevsky has been under investigation for corruption since leaving his ministerial post in 2012. More recently, he was charged with bribery after anti-corruption officers seized $5m in cash, allegedly destined to make the investigators drop their inquiries into Burisma. He acquired a Cypriot passport on December 1, 2017, and now reportedly lives in Monaco.

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Even before The Cyprus Papers, much has been written about Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs who have bought Cypriot citizenship, including Oleg Deripaska, a billionaire businessman close to President Vladimir Putin.

The successful applicants also include one of the world’s most wanted fugitives, Low Taek Jho, popularly known as Jho Low and allegedly the mastermind behind a $700m fraud scandal that brought down former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Perhaps in response to such reports, in 2019 the Cypriot interior ministry made a series of announcements, including the revocation of 29 passports that had been granted in error and the strengthening of the eligibility criteria for future applicants.

Anyone deemed to be a politically exposed person (PEP) – an official in a high-profile position in government or state-owned enterprises – would in the future be prohibited from becoming a Cypriot citizen for at least five years after leaving the post, as would his or her family members and business associates.

Corruption investigators claim that PEPs are much more likely to be involved in corrupt activities because of their access to state funds.

The law also clarifies restrictions on applicants associated with sanctioned entities and those under investigation or facing criminal charges before a trial.

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The ‘Kremlin’s Bank’ and global PEPs

In the aftermath of Russia’s takeover of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, the US and the EU placed sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy, impacting VTB Bank. For years, VTB had been a linchpin in Moscow’s projection of economic power, from pumping investments into the former Communist-bloc and new EU member, Bulgaria, to bankrolling the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. It became known as the “Kremlin’s bank”.

Three of VTB’s leading executives invested in neighbouring properties at the Coral Seas Villas development near Paphos, a seafront resort in Cyprus. Alexei Yakovitsky, CEO of VTB Capital, Victoria Vanurina, member of the VTB Bank Management Board, and Vitaly Buzoverya, senior vice president of VTB Bank, were all approved for Cypriot citizenship along with their spouses.

Data gathered by anti-corruption NGO Global Witness shows how, between 2007 and 2016, Cyprus was the number-one destination for outward foreign direct investment by Russian residents – otherwise known as capital flight – estimated at nearly $130m. Although there is no suggestion that this money is being used for criminal purposes, there is growing evidence that Cyprus has become a favoured destination for Russians seeking to launder the proceeds of ill-gotten gains.

Granting citizenship to applicants who are PEPs has been a contentious issue for the EU, and its rules severely restrict PEPs from acquiring an EU passport. It took until the summer of 2019 for Cyprus to fall in line with these rules, but not before many PEPs took full advantage of the Cypriot programme.

Speaker of the lower house of the National Assembly of Afghanistan Mir Rahman Rahmani is a high-level PEP. Before entering politics, Rahmani built his business empire supplying the occupying US military in Afghanistan with fuel and security services. His approved application states that his wife and three daughters are also citizens of Saint Kitts and Nevis, another country with a citizenship-by-investment programme. His son, Haji Ajmal Rahmani, a politician representing the capital city, Kabul, also sought Cypriot citizenship.

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The Rahmani Group has interests not only in Afghanistan but also in the Gulf and Europe. As far as corruption experts are concerned, the Rahmani father and son are potentially in a position to steer policy in a way that would lead to their personal enrichment. And a Cypriot passport would allow them to deposit their wealth in a European bank account, far from scrutiny.

The Cypriot government’s due diligence checks should also have spotted Vladimir Khristenko, a PEP through his father, Viktor Khristenko and his stepmother, Tatyana Golikova. Both have held a number of leading political positions as well as serving as deputy prime ministers of Russia, while Viktor has served twice as minister of industry. Golikova, once described in the Russian media as “one of the most odious deputy prime ministers of the Russian Federation”, has served as minister of health and as an aide to Putin.

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The couple declared an annual income in 2017 of more than $1m, although their combined net worth is estimated to be far greater, not least due to significant stakes in three luxury golf resorts with a combined value of $360m. According to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an investigative reporting platform, “It’s not clear from their public income declarations how Khristenko and his wife Golikova could have afforded such valuable assets.”

In 2006, Vladimir, aged 25, became chairman of the supervisory board of a Czech subsidiary of the Chelyabinsk Pipe Rolling Plant group. He now runs pharmaceutical company Nanolek – owned by a Cypriot entity – which has reportedly been developing a vaccine for COVID-19, as well as producing hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that has been promoted by some to treat COVID-19 despite its unproven efficacy in combatting the coronavirus.

The leak obtained by Al Jazeera, spanning a two-year period between 2017 and 2019, highlights a systemic failure of the CIP. Regulations were not strictly enforced and ineligible applicants continue to be approved well after the government supposedly tightened the rules in February 2019.

Money-go-round

After months of delay, the Cypriot parliament passed a law in July 2020 allowing the government to revoke citizenship from anyone sentenced for a serious crime, facing international sanctions or placed on an international wanted list after they became a citizen.

Cyprus’s Minister of Interior Nicos Nouris, who is in charge of the CIP, told Al Jazeera that no citizenship had been granted in violation of the regulations in force at the time. Cyprus functions, he said, as an EU member state with absolute transparency.

Despite attempts to close loopholes, several NGOs, members of the European Parliament and some opposition figures in Cyprus are calling for the programme to be scrapped entirely. Opposition politician Irene Charalambides says, “[The government] is putting the European Union in danger. They are opening the gates of the European Union with the passports they are selling.”

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While Cyprus’s reputation has been damaged by the revelations about the programme, it is not the only victim in the money-go-round of purchasing citizenships. In many cases, the funds invested on the golden beaches of Larnaca and Paphos were stolen from the Russian, Ukrainian and Chinese people. As corruption undermines the standing of an EU member state, it also undermines the development of civil society in the countries where the money was sourced.

The passports may be Cypriot, but the anonymously registered companies are in Jersey, the bank accounts often in London. The yachts are docked in the Cote d’Azur and the people suffering are in Kabul, Khabarovsk and Kyiv.



Source – www.aljazeera.com

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Year of the Overcomer-Prophet Elvis Mbonye

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The eagerly awaited first fellowship of controversial Prophet Elvis Mbonye left viewers shocked as he declined to issue his now famous prophecies citing a refusal to settle for the new normal. In an on online service watched by thousands, the Prophet said him prophesying would “ be a concession to gathering online, rather than physically” further stating that it is not the will of God that church should meet online!

The Covid-19 SOPs given by the government and Ministry of Health have heavily impacted gatherings and as a result, ministries with large congregations have resorted to online services. The prophet however insists that this is a ploy to diminish the influence of the Kingdom of God.

He however proceeded to give the Prophetic Word of the year , saying “This is the year of the Overcomers” amidst cheers from those present. He also stated that this would not be a “gloomy” year, probably meaning that this would be a good year. Given that many of his prophecies have actually come to pass, should we pay more attention to him? We eagerly await the prophecies this year.

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Kabuleta blasts Media over “COFIT” reporting in new rant.

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Presidential hopeful Joseph Kiiza Kabuleta has expressed dissatisfaction with the media over what he says was”alarmist reporting” over the Covid-19 pandemic which he calls “COFIT” a term we believe is a wordplay between covid and profit, a view held by many that claims that the disease was exaggerated to maximize funding and corruption. Kabuleta has come to be known for his straight shooting style and admirable command of facts and policy, even being touted as the “smartest candidate” in the race.here is the full statement:

MEDIA AND THE COFIT ENTERPRISE

By Joseph Kabuleta

“Don’t look at where you fell, but where you slipped”
AFRICAN PROVERB

We know where the media fell. They fell when they were caught in the crossfire between opposition politicians and trigger-happy security hitmen; when they were unfairly targeted as they went about their noble duty of covering this explosive elective season. Sadly, some journalists are nursing wounds; others weren’t so lucky.
But it’s important for us to understand where they slipped.

If someone is sitting by the roadside sipping on his brew and he sees a gang of people sprinting past him, as if for their lives, it’s understandable if he impulsively joins without asking questions. But if after nine months he is still sprinting, and has still not asked any questions, then there’s something terribly wrong with him.

When we first went into lockdown in March, it was probably the best course of action because we didn’t know the full extent of the Cofit threat. But in the first 90 days, it was clear to all and sundry that it was never going to rank among Uganda’s top health challenges. And that’s not my opinion.

The Daily Monitor on July 15th quoted Dr Baterana Byarugaba, the Mulago Hospital Executive Director, describing the Cofit strain in the country as a mild form of flu which does not require hospital admission since it can be treated at home or in lower health facilities.
“l told Ugandans right from the beginning that the type of coronavirus we expect in Uganda is the mild one. It can be treated at health centre II, III, IV or the district hospital,” the top Medic said.

I read the story with glorious delight supposing that finally common sense, (or should I say science sense) would inform our decisions as a nation. But it’s difficult to know where science stops and politics starts. It’s become clear over the months that Cofit is not just a virus that causes respiratory problems, it’s a lot more than that; it’s a weapon in the hands of politicians that gives them power beyond their wildest dreams. In America, for instance, Democrat Congressman Jim Clyburn said Cofit is a “tremendous opportunity to restructure things to fit our (leftist) vision” while actress and activist Jane Fonda said that Cofit was “God’s gift to the left.”

Our media could have taken the side of poor Ugandans by showing the immense suffering and death from preventable sicknesses that resulted from the harsh Cofit measures; they could have highlighted the plight of businesses permanently closed and workers rendered redundant and sent back to villages. They could have wondered why truck drivers were testing negative in Kenya and positive in Uganda, or wondered why Cofit deaths only started after Prophet Museveni showed us a macabre lineup of coffins in his address, or why every celebrity who dies since then is ruled as Cofit (no autopsy required)

They could have told us that according to Worldometer, Cofit has a 0.28% mortality rate (or a 99.72 survival rate) and that it doesn’t rank anywhere in the Top 10 of Uganda’s health challenges; they could have told us that a child dies of malaria every two minutes (and Uganda accounts for 3% of the world’s malaria fatalities), which means that more Ugandans die from mosquitoes in ten days than Cofit has (allegedly) killed in the nine months it’s been on our lips.

Ugandans (especially of my age) have lived through real pandemics. As a young man growing up in the early 90s, nobody had to remind me that AIDS was real. Goodness me, I knew it was! And I didn’t need police to force me to wear protection, I knew the consequences. The fact that we are constantly being reminded that ‘Cofit is real’ tells a story of its own.

The media could have asked why Uganda, with one of the lowest Cofit cases or deaths, still holds on to a 9:00pm curfew when Kenya moved to 11:00pm in September, as did South Africa and several countries. The media could have told us that Malawi, Burundi, Tanzania and, recently, Ghana all held successful elections with full blown campaigns in 2020, and we aren’t hearing people dropping dead from Cofit in any of those countries. May be they should have tried to find out if people are dropping dead in Tanzania which altogether ignored all Cofit measures and went on to acquire middle-income status while Ugandans were still in lockdown.

They could have told us about the asymptomatic Cofit patients who were filmed dancing the night away in hospital wards, or of people suffering from other diseases who dare not go to hospital because they fear to be given a fake Cofit label and held for two weeks against their will.

The media could have told us that Cofit deaths across the world have been grossly inflated. Minnesota lawmakers say Cofit deaths could have been inflated by 40% after examining death certificates (according to The Washington Examiner) while Fox News reported that in Colorado 45% of Cofit corpses “were also found to have bullet wounds”.

They could have told us that 22 European countries, all of which had tens of thousands of Cofit deaths, opened their schools in the fall, and there has not been any reported spikes in cases as a result. They could have told us that more people have been killed by security men enforcing Cofit measures than by the virus itself.

Well, they could have…but they didn’t. And that’s where they slipped.

Instead they chose to go down the path of alarmist reporting and in so doing became, inadvertently or otherwise, enablers of Uganda’s trillion-shilling Cofit enterprise. Like Squealer in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the media used flowery language to drum up fear by keeping people’s eyes transfixed on swelling numbers while the thieves carried their loot and stashed it away, and loan money was distributed among family members or used in regime prolongation.

The recent joint television news bulletin, and the adverts that followed, were the peak of hysterical reporting. “Zuukuka Tusaanawo” (wake up, we are perishing) screamed an advert featuring top media personalities. What a load of……(fill in appropriate word).

Remember, all the tyranny we have witnessed in this season has been done in the name of Cofit, and such sensationalist reporting justifies it; it gives dictators like Museveni the perfect pseudo-moralistic cover to unleash their most despotic fantasies while actually pretending that it’s for the good of the people. Unfortunately, the terror has now spread to the very media people whose hyperbole enabled it in the first place. There is such a thing as the law of cause and consequence, after all.

Instead of the media walking out of pressers and threatening to boycott government functions, let them threaten to stop all Cofit reporting. Museveni himself would come running with chocolate in hand.

If the president extended curfew by just two hours, for instance, he will have put as many as 200,000 Ugandans back to work especially in the hotel, restaurant and entertainment industries; but he doesn’t care, and sadly neither do many middleclass Ugandans who suppose that it’s their moral obligation as responsible citizens of the Global Village to fret over Cofit just because their ‘fellow citizens’ in Europe and America are doing so. Of course they can afford to do that because their corporate jobs have, for the most part, insulated them from the devastation of the government-instituted Cofit measures. They can enjoy working at home, beer in hand, as they listen to CNN and BBC and still expect the full complement of their salaries at the month end, and that makes them feel every bit like ‘their brothers’ overseas.

Such aspirational conformists are more likely to be offended by my stance on Cofit because they haven’t traversed crook and creek of this country and seen the damage reigned on this fragile society; not by the virus, but by the measures supposedly instituted to mitigate it.

You see, perhaps the most enduring damage this regime has done to our society is creating a three-part hierarchy of class and needs. At the zenith are a handful of connected ‘1986 generation’ and their families who feel entitled to all power and wealth. Beneath is a small (and shrinking) middleclass, and at the bottom of the pyramid is a mass of peasants. Every society, to various degrees, is ordered in the same fashion, but what makes Uganda unique is that the megalomaniacs at the top don’t give a nickel about the plight of the middleclass and the middleclass in turn don’t care a bit about the quandary of the peasant. The charlatans at the top will impose punitive taxes on the middleclass, then dip into NSSF coffers at a whim to share out their savings, and no one can stop them.

And the middleclass Ugandan, armed with his medical insurance, and safe in the knowledge that his wife is unlikely to die in child birth (20 Ugandans do EVERY DAY), and his children are very unlikely to die of malaria (20 do EVERY DAY), or from malnutrition (thousands do every year), will go around trumpeting Cofit because it’s more relevant to his status than malnutrition or malaria.

I could just as easily go down that path. I could also close my eyes to mothers failing to get breast milk because they can only afford half a meal a day (black tea with a piece of cassava), and the malnourished babies that emerge as a result; I could close my eyes to the teenage girls that were given out in marriage because schools closed, or those given out to meet family needs; I could ignore the fact that our president is opening 5-star markets in cities which have 1-star referral hospitals; I could also choose to look the other way and enjoy my middleclass lifestyle, but as an aspiring leader, I cannot.

As a leader, my aspiration is to remove the privileged/entitled class, to expand the middleclass (and their income), and to shrink the peasantry; but mostly to blur the lines that separate each category.
It doesn’t bode well for our country if the average Corporate Ugandan knows more about racism in America than about extreme poverty in Teso or Busoga because that disqualifies him/her from the solution to those local problems.

And finally, I have come to the realization that the biggest pandemic afflicting our country is poverty and the virus that causes it is called M7-1986. Vaccination against it is January 14

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Muntu Blocked in Kamwenge

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Alliance for National Transformation presidential candidate Gen. Mugisha Muntu has been blocked from campaigning in Kamwenge according to a statement he released earlier today.Below is the full statement:

STATEMENT
Today in Kamwenge, as we have done since the start of the campaign season, we headed out to speak with the people. We had earlier in the week agreed on the venue with security agencies. No one had anticipated that it would rain as much as it did, making it impossible for us or the people to access.

After identifying an alternative place only 100m away from the original venue, negotiating with the owner and communicating the same to the public, we headed to the second venue only to be stopped by police.

Our policy has always been to do all we can to be reasonable, even in the face of unreasonable action on the part of the state. We engaged the police leadership in a civilized, respectable manner well knowing that they intended to not only frustrate us, but cause us to act in ways that would give them an excuse to cause chaos. This was on top of their intimidating the radio we had booked and duly paid to appear on.

While we are confident that we are on the right side of both the law and reason, we have chosen not to endanger the lives of our supporters or the general public by escalating the situation. We will do everything humanly possible to avoid a single life being lost or blood being shed on account of our campaign.

And yet this truth remains: the regime’s days are numbered.

ChangeYouCanTrust

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