What’s common to industrialist Gautam Adani’s elder brother Vinod, businessman Pankaj Oswal and real estate baron Surendra Hiranandani?
Cyprus. And their quest for its “golden passport”.
A destination for floating offshore companies, Cyprus is also the favoured choice of wealthy Indians and NRIs looking to acquire its citizenship for a cozy life on the Mediterranean or for keeping a safe distance from criminal charges and money-laundering cases back home.
Introduced in 2007, the “golden passport” scheme was also called the “Cyprus Investment Programme”. It facilitated the grant of Cypriot citizenship to financially prominent individuals, thereby bringing in foreign direct investments into the country.
A 2022 audit by the Cyprus government showed that a total of 7,327 individuals were cleared for Cypriot passports, of whom 3,517 were “investors” and the rest, members of their families.
The scheme went through several changes — of the amount of investments the applicants had to show and so on — until 2020 when it was finally scrapped for alleged misuse and for allowing persons with criminal charges, dubious character and PEPs (politically exposed persons) to acquire Cyprus passports.
The OCCPR (Organized Crime And Corruption Reporting Project), a partner in the Cyprus Confidential project, has unredacted the entire data of thousands of prominent individuals who obtained the “golden passports” as well as investigation reports prepared by the Cyprus government. These show that after 2020, 83 cases were recommended for revocation of passports.
The data shows that between 2014 and 2020, 66 Indians managed to obtain Cyprus passports – the entire process, on an average, taking three months to a year.
Among the early applicants granted Cypriot citizenship was Vinod Shantilal Adani, the elder brother of Gautam Adani, whose offshore holdings have been detailed in the January 2023 Hindenburg report.
Vinod Adani, described as one of the richest NRIs, has been in Dubai since the early 1990s but carries a Cyprus passport. The OCCRP data shows him listed as an “investor” in the records who applied for the “golden passport” scheme on August 3, 2016. In barely three months, on November 25, 2016, his application was cleared and Cypriot citizenship granted.
Vinod Adani figured earlier in The Indian Express-ICIJ offshore investigations. First, in the 2016 Panama Papers for setting up a company named GA International Inc in the Bahamas in 1994 – just months after the formation of Adani Group’s then flagship company Adani Exports. In the 2021 Pandora Papers, Vinod Adani was named for incorporating a British Virgin Islands company, Hibiscus RE Holdings Limited.
These latest revelations about him assume added significance given his alleged role in managing a network of offshore entities as detailed in the Hindenburg report. The report had identified 38 Mauritius shell entities controlled by Vinod Adani or close associates; it also identified entities in Cyprus, the UAE, Singapore, and several Caribbean islands.
Post Hindenburg, the role of Vinod Adani, who until then, mostly occupied the back seat in the business operations of Adani Group, came under the spotlight. Although he is part of the ‘promoter group’ of various listed entities in the Adani Group, the company has publicly maintained that “Vinod Adani does not hold any managerial position in Adan-listed entities or their subsidiaries and has no role in their day to day affairs”.
Another prominent Indian who acquired Cypriot citizenship was industrialist Pankaj Oswal along with his wife Radhika Oswal.
The businessman is the founder of Burrup Holdings Limited, a liquid ammonium manufacturer, and recently made headlines for buying one of the most expensive houses in the world — in Switzerland for $200 million.
The Otis data has dozens of documents on Cyprol Limited, the company that Pankaj Oswal set up in Cyprus, as well as details of his citizenship application and final acceptance. According to the data, on April 28, 2017, the Oswals applied for citizenship and it took almost a year before it was granted — on April 4, 2018.
Incidentally, once Pankaj Oswal obtained his Cypriot citizenship, he shut down Cyprol Limited — proof of this is the authorisation he signed as the Ultimate Beneficial Owner (UBO) of the company for ConnectedSky, on March 22, 2019 to strike off the company from the Cyprus registry.
On October 13, 2020, the Council of Ministers of Cyprus decided to phase out the “golden passport” scheme citing its “chronic weaknesses and the abusive exploitation of its provisions”. They also commissioned two investigative reports, highlighting the misuse, and citing specific examples.
The unredacted versions of these reports, also obtained by OCCRP, shows that the names of a total of 83 individuals were flagged for review and possible revocation. A majority of them were earlier citizens of Russia and, according to the data, most were marked for applications bearing “false statement by the investors”
The recommendation for these 83 possible revocations was made by a Commission appointed by the Attorney General of Cyprus, Georgios Savvides, in September 2020 and headed by retired Supreme Court Chairman, Myron Nicolatos. The Government of Cyprus has not yet officially revealed how many of those under the scanner had their Cypriot citizenships revoked.
In response to questions sent for the Cyprus Confidential investigation by OCCRP and other media partners, the Cyprus Ministry of Interior has clarified that they have decided on the deprivation of citizenship of 233 individuals and of them, 68 individuals are investors and 165 are family members of the investors. The Ministry has not, however, clarified if those listed for possible revocation by the Nicolatos Commission are included in the list of 233 individuals for which their investigations were “ongoing.”
The Ministry’s response: “The current administration is determined to implement the legislation concerning the deprivation of Cypriot citizenship to the letter… The Ministry of Interior conducts its own investigations with the collaboration of the security forces of the Republic of Cyprus.”
There is only one Indian on the list of proposed revocations of Cypriot passports — Anubhav Aggarwal, a businessman whose ‘golden passport’ was approved within four months on November 2, 2016.
The Nicolatos Commission’s inquiry report states that Aggarwal was implicated in the National Spot Exchange Limited (NSEL) scam and that he failed to mention his links with the suspect companies in his application for citizenship.
Aggarwal is a “key accused” in the NSEL scam in which investors were duped of over Rs 3,600 crore. In August 2020, he was arrested in Abu Dhabi and in June 2020, his properties attached by the Enforcement Directorate (ED).
Aggarwal is not the only one on the list of Indians who acquired Cypriot citizenship and have had a brush with Indian law enforcement agencies but managed to obtain a Cypriot passport under the now defunct investment scheme.
Among them is Nesamanimaran Muthu, better known as MGM Maran, a Tamil Nadu-based businessman and former chairman of the Tamil Nadu Mercantile Bank Limited who acquired Cypriot citizenship in 2016 (his application was cleared in just two months). In 2017, his two children also got citizenship.
MGM Maran and his company, Agrifurane Industries Private Limited, have been in the crosshairs of the ED in India. In December 2022, the agency issued a media release stating that assets to the tune of Rs 293 crore had been attached by them since an equivalent foreign investment had been made by Maran in two companies in Singapore without approval of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).
The ED also mentioned MGM Maran’s Cypriot citizenship in an official release. “In order to escape the reach of Indian laws, MGM Maran surrendered his Indian citizenship. Not only that, it was also found that MGM Maran also started transferring his wealth from India to overseas in order to keep the same out of reach of the Indian law enforcement agencies in the garb of overseas direct investments from Southern Agrifurane Industries Private Limited (his flagship company),” the ED claimed.
Early recipients of the “golden passport” and allegedly embroiled in criminal cases included Virkaran Awasthy, a businessman from Uttar Pradesh, and his wife Ritika Awasthy. They too acquired citizenship in 2016 (Ritika’s was cleared in 20 days, the data shows) and had moved to London. But years later, first, the Uttar Pradesh police, then the Delhi Police and subsequently, the ED began tailing them.
The charges against them were that as Directors of Bush Foods Overseas Pvt Ltd, the couple had duped farmers on the pretext of wheat and paddy purchase. They were declared “absconders” and in October 2019, they were arrested in London. In November 2020, the ED filed a chargesheet in the case, alleging an economic fraud to the tune of Rs 750 crore and finally, in December 2021, their extradition was allowed by courts in the UK.
Other prominent Indians on the list included Mumbai-based real estate developer Surendra Hiranandani and several members of his family. While Surendra Hiranandani acquired his Cyprus passport (it was approved in two months) along with his wife Alka Bhatia Hiranandani on July 12, 2016, three other members of his family acquired the citizenship in 2018.
Questions sent by The Indian Express to Vinod Adani, Pankaj Oswal, MGM Maran and Surendra Hiranandani did not elicit any response despite reminders. Questions dispatched to the New Delhi residence of Virkaran Awasthy remained unanswered and inquiries with relatives of Anubhav Aggarwal and at his former residence in Ludhiana gave no clue to his whereabouts.
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