NICOSIA, Cyprus -- Cyprus is to set in motion procedures to strip 26 foreign investors of citizenship, the country's interior minister said Wednesday, amid questions over whether they should have been issued a Cypriot passport under a lucrative investment program.
Constantinos Petrides said authorities will also investigate all investors who were granted Cypriot citizenship before 2018, when tougher eligibility criteria were put in place. A Cypriot passport appeals especially to wealthy, third-country nationals because holders become European Union citizens and can work and travel freely within the 28-country bloc.
The announcement follows a barrage of media reports casting doubt on how effectively Cypriot authorities vetted investors who were granted citizenship but were later found to have possibly broken the rules.
The reports alleged some individuals were linked to authoritarian governments or were being sought by authorities over their involvement in large-scale money laundering.
The revelations led Cyprus' president to acknowledge earlier this week that "errors" may have been made in granting such "golden passports."
A Cypriot government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about the issue, confirmed to The Associated Press that the 26 individuals slated to lose Cypriot citizenship include five Chinese nationals, nine Russians, eight Cambodians, one Malaysian, one Iranian and two Kenyans.
Nearly 4,000 Cypriot passports were issued to investors under the program that generated approximately 7 billion euros ($7.8 billion) since its inception in 2013 when a financial crisis nearly bankrupted the east Mediterranean island nation.
Petrides said a three-member committee headed by the country's auditor-general would pour over the results of the probe to determine whether the 26 targeted passport-holders or any others had in fact met the less-strict criteria.
The committee will also look at possible corrupt practices by Cypriot officials during the application process.
The interior minister said investors who have their Cypriot citizenship revoked have the right to appeal the decision. But he indicated that safeguarding the country's credibility was paramount.
"This program helped the country during a very difficult period," Petrides told reporters. "But beyond that, it shouldn't cause more damage than all the good it has done."
While the program had at its start a single vetting level, Petrides said it now has five times as many.
Checks were initially beefed up in 2018 when Cyprus obtained an international database through which it ran investors' names to pick up any misdeeds.
Vetting was strengthened again earlier this year with a requirement that investors hold visas enabling them to move freely within the EU and that any passport applications made under another EU country's investment program weren't rejected.
The EU warned Cyprus and other countries in January that they had to beef up their vetting procedures amid concerns that third-country nationals were exploiting the program to launder money and flout tax laws.
This story has been corrected to change the interior minister's first name to Constantinos.