Updated 9.23am, adds Cassola statement

Robert Abela rented out his Żejtun villa to two Russian passport applicants without verifying if they really lived there, Times of Malta can reveal.

Prospective Maltese passport buyers are meant to abide by strict residency requirements, including living in a rented or purchased property to prove they have established a “genuine link” with the country.

It appears, however, that Abela joined the ranks of scores of landlords who took advantage of phantom rents to prospective passport buyers, meaning he raked in thousands of euros by renting out his villa, built in an ODZ, to someone who likely rarely, if ever, set foot in it. 

At the time, Abela’s law firm Abela Advocates were agents for the golden passports scheme.

Research by Times of Malta shows two Russian individuals from Moscow, named Alexey and Natalia, were at a point registered at Abela’s Żejtun address.

A visit to the villa by Times of Malta last week shows it to be in a state of disrepair, with little signs of life inside.

One of Abela’s neighbours scoffed at the idea that any Russians had ever lived in the villa.

“There are no Russians here, my friend. The Abelas, particularly Lydia, used to visit quite often when they first bought it [in 2017]. Now they are hardly ever seen here. The place is pretty much abandoned,” the neighbour said.

Malta suspended passport sales to Russians and Belarusians two weeks ago, saying “recent developments” – a reference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – meant the necessary due diligence checks cannot be carried out effectively.

‘Rent began before I became PM’

Questioned by Times of Malta on Thursday, Abela admitted during a terse exchange to renting out the villa to a prospective passport buyer from Russia.

“The rent started before I became prime minister,” Abela said.

Abela, however, claimed not to know when the rental agreement with the Russian had been terminated.

“I do not know the exact date [of the termination]. It started before I was appointed prime minister. When the rental agreement expired, the rent stopped.”

The prime minister was also unable to say if the Russian passport applicant had really lived in the property.

“The individual in question had a rental agreement. What he did, or did not do, I do not know.”

Abela denied helping the Russian couple dodge the “strict” residency requirements required to qualify for a Maltese passport.

The individual in question had a rental agreement. What he did, or did not do, I do not know

“I am informed that the application [for a Maltese passport] by the individual in question was not accepted.”

A few weeks after becoming prime minister in January 2020, Abela announced his law firm Abela Advocates had stopped selling Maltese passports.

The prime minister, however, continues to be a strong advocate of the scheme, which is viewed as a money-laundering, tax evasion and security risk by the European Commission.

Earlier this month, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a call to ban citizenship-by-investment schemes in the European Union, demanding the European Commission adopt new legislation to enforce such a ban.

The last available report from the scheme’s regulator shows the government has directly raked in over €1 billion from passport sales since the scheme’s inception in 2014.

Money from the scheme has been used in recent years to fund everything from social housing units to the recently announced Ħal Far racetrack.

Arnold Cassola seeks information on Abela's rental declarations

In a statement on Sunday, independent candidate Arnold Cassola said he has written to the permanent secretary at the Finance Ministry seeking information on Abela's tax rental declarations.

He asked the permanent secretary to say whether the tax due on the phantom rental had been paid.

He also asked for an explanation as to how Abela occupied a government-owned building in Strait Street, Valletta without a title and the amount of rent he was paying for it.

The country, he said, requested absolute and immediate transparency.

How the passport scheme was abused

A leaked cache of documents known as the Passport Papers laid bare how the requirement for passport buyers to actually live in Malta was being abused.

Millionaires looking to buy a Maltese passport would spend an average of 16 days in Malta during their mandatory one-year residency period, the cache of documents from former concessionaires Henley & Partners showed.

In some instances, passport applicants flew in and out of Malta within 24 hours of swearing an oath of allegiance to the country, its constitution and its people.   

The details emerged from an investigation carried out by Times of Malta as part of the Passport Papers project pertaining to the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund and coordinated by the Daphne Caruana Galizia foundation.

A typical itinerary of an Individual Investor Programme client would often see applicants fly in and out of Malta within the space of a couple of days, with the express purpose of picking up their residency card, opening a bank account, signing documents and other formalities that required their physical presence on the island. 

The documents also showed how passport applicants ended up renting unfinished properties, sharing addresses or renting basic properties for high prices.

Over the years, the government has relaunched the scheme on various occasions, shifting around or changing the name of the agency in charge of running it.

Alex Muscat, the cabinet member responsible for the scheme, insists its latest iteration is not a golden passports scheme but rather a residency scheme that can lead to Maltese, and EU, citizenship.


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