Márta Demeter, Hungarian MP of green party LMP, filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office because of the Hungarian residence permit of Atiya Khoury, the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s moneyman. The Hungarian residence permit was granted to Khoury through the country’s controversial residency bond program, a joint investigation of 444 and Direkt36 revealed in March.
After the publication of our article, Demeter went to Hungary’s Immigration and Asylum Office to ask for further information. The office confirmed to Demeter that Atiya Khoury bought Hungarian residence bond in 2014 and, in exchange, he received a temporary residency permit the same year. Later, he also applied for a permanent residence permit, which he received at the beginning of 2017.
This date is significant as Khoury was put on the U.S. Treasury Department sanction list in the summer of 2016. According to the sanction documents, Khoury owns and operates Moneta Transfer & Exchange, a financial services network that deals with currency exchange and cash transfers and has played an important role in maintaining Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Khoury is accused of moving cash between Syria, Lebanon, and Russia.
Demeter was also informed that Hungarian authorities found no risk during Atiya Khoury’s security screening and that the Immigration and Asylum Office does not plan to carry out further investigations or to revoke the permanent residence permit of the Syrian man.
“Based on these statements, I have a reason to believe that the Immigration and Asylum Office breaks the law as it does not investigate the case of Atiya Khoury and does not plan to revoke his permanent residence permit,” Demeter wrote in her complaint, sent on July 3 to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, in which she asks for the investigation of the case.
According to the immigration law, the permanent residence permit can only be revoked in some cases, for example, if the applicant provides false data or he is banned from the country. However, according to Demeter, it is the duty of Immigration and Asylum Office to investigate the case of Atiya Khoury.
The Immigration and Asylum Office also told Demeter that the other person named in our article, Salmo Bazkka, a suspected member of an international criminal network, received a permanent residence permit already in 2010 and – contrary to what a close relative of his told Direkt36 – he did not buy residency bonds.
Under the residency bond program between 2013 and 2017, foreigners could obtain permanent residence permit in Hungary in exchange for an investment of 300 thousand euros in special government bonds. The program was criticized for posing corruption and security risks, was suspended in March 2017, and the 2019 budget law suggests that its legal basis will also be deleted.
The legal closure of the residency bond programme is a “half-success,” Demeter told Direkt36. “But it is apparent that among foreigners who came to Hungary through the residency bond program there are still some that pose latent security risks,” she added.
Golden Visas in Europe
Members of the European Parliament are also interested in this story. Two Dutch MEPs of social democrat S&D, Kati Piri and Paul Tang filed a written question in April quoting the findings of our article. They asked, among others: „With an apparent approval rate of 99.7% of 20 000 applicants for such ‘golden visas’ in Hungary, is the Commission confident that all the individuals concerned have been properly checked for security
“It is for Member States to ensure that the necessary steps are taken to counteract security risks. They must also apply rigorous criteria to identify and combat criminality and corruption,” answered the Commission, adding that “regarding these residence permits for investors, (…) the Commission has no competence on the issuing of residence permits or long-stay visas for investors in the absence of harmonisation at EU level”.
Similar to Hungary’s residency bond program, other European countries also have so-called Golden Visa programs that offer residence permit or even citizenship to foreigners in exchanges of investment. The European Parliament held a topical debate about the issue in May, where MEPs from different political groups talked about the corruption and security risks of these schemes and urged the European Commission to regulate Golden Visa programs. The Commission is expected to publish a report about Golden Visas at the end of 2018.
András Szabó contributed to this article.
Cover photo: Bence Kiss, 444.hu