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Passport buyers’ origins to remain ‘a secret’

Information could irritate diplomatic partners

The origin of foreign millionaires buying a Maltese passport cannot be revealed as it may prejudice the government’s diplomatic relations with other counties, according to Identity Malta.

Identity Malta’s decision not to release such information was supported by the Data Protection Commissioner, who was brought into the picture by the Times of Malta after seeking details on the so-called individual investor programme under the Freedom of Information Act.

Following a year-long investigation, the Data Protection Commissioner found that the government agency was right in rejecting this newspaper’s request “as the entire information requested is such that the public interest that is served by non-disclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure”.

The cash-for-passport scheme – introduced just months into Labour’s return to power in 2013 – is still shrouded in secret with the government refusing to publish the names of those buying Maltese citizenship, which puts them on par with Maltese and EU citizens.

A leaked report by the Financial Intelligence and Analysis Unit last year indicated that the government anti-money laundering agency had suspicions that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Keith Schembri, could have received kickbacks from proceeds of the passport scheme.

The public interest that is served by non-disclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure

Mr Schembri denied such allegations, insisting that the money in question in fact consisted of repayment of a loan made to Nexia BT’s Brian Tonna.

In the wake of the report, the Times of Malta sought to establish the origin of those buying a Maltese passport and the agents submitting their applications.

This newspaper asked for the number of passport buyers, their country of origin and the agencies that handled their application.

Identity Malta immediately refused to disclose such details, citing the reasons for non-disclosure listed the Freedom of Information Act.

Subsequently, the Times of Malta asked the Data Protection Commissioner to look into the matter, arguing that information it sought was in the public interest.

However, the Data Protection Commissioner disagreed and concluded that the publication of such information “may prejudice relations with a number of the countries of origin” from where the passport buyers hailed.

Identity Malta, he added, was also correct not to list the agencies involved “as this could reasonably be expected to prejudice commercial interests and, ultimately, the competitiveness of approved agents as it would reveal commercially-sensitive information”.

Originally, foreign company Henley & Partners had been appointed as sole agent to sell Maltese passports but, after an uproar, the government decided to open the scheme to Maltese firms too, mainly lawyers’ and accountants’ partnerships and financial services providers.

The government only publishes the names of the passport buyers together with those of other foreigners acquiring citizenship by naturalisation or through other ‘normal’ channels.

Identity Malta said that, until the middle of last year, 679 foreigners had bought Maltese citizenship.

The majority, 362, originated from European countries, followed by 100 from the Gulf region and another 92 from Asia.

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