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Portugal probes granting of citizenship to Russian-Israeli oligarch

Portuguese authorities say inquiry meant to determine if ‘there was any kind of irregularity’ after Roman Abramovich’s claim of Sephardic descent, Jewish ancestry law face scrutiny

Chelsea's Russian owner Roman Abramovich applauds his players after they defeated Arsenal 6-0, in an English Premier League soccer match at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, on March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Chelsea's Russian owner Roman Abramovich applauds his players after they defeated Arsenal 6-0, in an English Premier League soccer match at Stamford Bridge stadium in London, on March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Authorities in Portugal have launched an internal probe into a decision to grant citizenship to Russian-Israeli billionaire Roman Abramovich, under legislation allowing descendants of Jews expelled in the 15th century to obtain Portuguese passports.

Abramovich, who owns popular English soccer club Chelsea, was reported in December to have acquired Portuguese citizenship. Both his claims of Sephardic ancestry and the 2015 law that enabled him to receive a passport have since come under scrutiny, with critics saying loopholes may allow the rich to secure access to the European Union.

Portugal’s justice ministry on Thursday confirmed the inquiry to Reuters, describing it as a standard process.

“It is a normal procedure adopted whenever there are situations or news that refer to any possible irregularity in the procedure carried out,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The IRN only intends to establish, without any room for doubt, whether… there was any kind of irregularity,” it added, using the initials of the agency in charge of nationality and passport issues.

The statement did not specify what the focus of the inquiry would be.

A spokeswoman for Abramovich told the news agency that the billionaire and his team “welcome any review.”

“It will only demonstrate the citizenship was obtained in accordance with the rules,” she said of the inquiry.

To get Portuguese citizenship, Abramovich would have needed to prove that he is descended from Jews whose families fled the Iberian Peninsula due to the Inquisition, a campaign of antisemitic persecution in Portugal and Spain.

Members of the Jewish Community of Porto stand in the Kadoorie Mekor Haim Synagogue in Porto, on September 2, 2016. (AFP/Miguel Riopa)

Last month, the Jewish Community of Porto confirmed that it handled Abramovich’s citizenship application. The Lisbon Jewish community has had data on Abramovich’s ancestors for years, the Porto group said. It also dismissed claims that Abramovich’s naturalization was divergent in any way from the 2015 law and its procedures.

Abramovich has donated money to a project to honor Portuguese Jews in the German city of Hamburg, according to the community’s information portal Mazal.

In a blog post cited by Reuters, the group said some of the “most prestigious international Jewish institutions” signed off on his application.

A Portuguese passport allows Abramovich to live and work anywhere in the EU. It also potentially makes it easier for him to do business in the United Kingdom.

In 2018, Abramovich received an Israeli identity card under the Law of Return, which allows Jews to become citizens of Israel.

He gained Israeli citizenship after he was unable to extend his visa in the UK amid a diplomatic spat between London and Moscow.

In this file photo dated May 16, 2021, Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich attends the UEFA Women’s Champions League final soccer match against FC Barcelona in Gothenburg, Sweden. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

Abramovich instantly became the richest Israeli and is now also the richest Portuguese citizen. According to Forbes, he is currently worth $14.3 billion.

As a new citizen, Abramovich is exempt from taxes in Israel on income earned abroad for 10 years, and need not declare the sources of that income for the same period.

When Abramovich’s British visa expired, newly instated, more rigorous regulations meant that he would have to explain the source of his wealth to receive a new one.

There is no evidence that Abramovich has done anything wrong, but the UK has scrutinized Russian businesspeople and diplomats more carefully in recent years.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.

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