By Catarina Demony
LISBON (Reuters) – Portugal said on Thursday it would not strip the citizenship of Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich for now because that measure was not part of EU sanctions against Russian oligarchs, but his nationality status could change depending on the outcome of an inquiry.
Britain on Thursday imposed sanctions on the 55-year-old, who has Israeli and Portuguese citizenship, in an escalation of measures against associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin after the Kremlin’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
In a statement sent to Reuters, the Portuguese justice ministry said sanctions imposed by Britain on Russian-born Abramovich did not apply outside the United Kingdom due to its exit from the European Union.
The bloc, of which Portugal is a member, has blacklisted a number of Russian oligarchs but an EU spokesperson for foreign affairs said it could only apply sanctions to third country nationals or entities, and not to its own citizens.
“The EU cannot sanction its own citizens and entities – they are being ‘punished’ within the existing legal framework in the EU,” the spokesperson said, without explaining what the “existing legal framework” allowed.
But there are examples of times when the EU sanctioned its own citizens, said law researcher Miguel Delgado.
In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, a European Council regulation said restrictive measures could be applied to EU nationals. In 2012, the bloc banned the London-born wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from travelling to the EU.
Abramovich was granted Portuguese citizenship in April 2021 based on a law offering naturalisation to descendants of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from the Iberian peninsula during the mediaeval Inquisition.
There is little known history of Sephardic Jews in Russia, although Abramovich is a common surname of Ashkenazi Jewish origin.
The Portuguese prosecutor’s office in January opened an investigation into the granting of citizenship to Abramovich.. On Thursday, a Portuguese government source told Reuters Abramovich’s citizenship could be stripped depending on the outcome of the inquiry.
A spokesperson for Abramovich did not reply to a request for comment.
Joao Paulo Batalha, an anti-corruption expert and vice president of Civic Front, an association that denounces wrongdoing in public life, told Reuters the Portuguese government should implement measures of its own, whether or not the EU ends up adding Abramovich to its list of sanctioned oligarchs.
“This obtuse response from the Portuguese government indicates a blatant negligence … with Abramovich’s obscure interests,” Batalha said.
He said Abramovich’s citizenship should not be removed due to the sanctions but due to the “many indications of fraud associated with the certification process of alleged Sephardic descendants”.
Batalha as well as other activists, commentators and politicians have repeatedly said the law offering naturalisation to descendants of Sephardic Jews must be reviewed as they believe it is being used by oligarchs to get a foothold in the EU.
Applicants’ genealogies are vetted by experts at one of Portugal’s Jewish centres, Lisbon or Porto. The Porto centre was responsible for Abramovich’s process. They have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
“It is obvious that a person’s citizenship cannot be withdrawn just like that … that’s why citizenship … is so desirable and sought after by oligarchs. It provides a high level of protection,” said Susana Coroado, president of the Portuguese branch of Transparency International. “But that’s also why it can’t be ‘sold’.”
(Reporting by Catarina Demony; Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels; Editing by Alex Richardson, Nick Macfie, William Maclean and Sandra Maler)