The Portuguese government’s policy of granting passports to descendants of Sephardic Jews has come under scrutiny as probes seek to determine whether Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich broke the rules in using the scheme.
Mr Abramovich, who is owner of Chelsea football club, was granted Portuguese citizenship in April 2021 through a programme that fast-tracks applications made by those who can prove they are descended from Jews who were expelled from Portugal in the Middle Ages.
Last week, Daniel Litvak, the rabbi who helped process the Russian’s application, was arrested as he was about to take a flight from Portugal to Israel, as part of a probe into the granting of Mr Abramovich’s nationality. He was later released but had to surrender his passport and must report to the police regularly.
The fast-track citizenship policy, which was introduced in 2015 and is similar to legislation in Spain, means that a passport can be requested and processed in just a few months if sufficient proof of Sephardic heritage can be provided. The Portuguese justice ministry has approved 32,000 passports this way, the vast majority of applications being processed via the Porto Israeli Community, which Mr Litvak led.
In January, Portugal’s Registries and Notary Institute, which deals with passport and nationality requests, opened an inquiry into the case of Mr Abramovich, following reports that the 2015 law was being misused.
The prosecutor’s office has launched a separate investigation into Mr Abramovich, who was added to an EU asset freeze and travel ban list this week due to his reported links to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
In the meantime, the processing of nationality applications for descendants of Sephardic Jews is at a virtual standstill after the Porto Israeli Community voluntarily suspended its role in the process.
On Wednesday, minister of foreign affairs Augusto Santos Silva announced that the existing law for descendants of Sephardic Jews will be adjusted, requiring candidates to demonstrate a “real link” to Portugal in order to gain citizenship. However, the change is not expected to be retroactive.
The previous day he had told parliament that sanctions against Russian oligarchs would be “scrupulously enforced” even if targets of those measures happened to have Portuguese nationality.
In mid-February, a spokeswoman for Mr Abramovich, who also has an Israeli passport, said he had taken Portuguese nationality as “an opportunity to honour his family’s history and, at the same time, support the local Jewish community”.
According to Portuguese newspaper Público, Mr Abramovich made donations to the Porto Holocaust Museum, which opened its doors in April 2021, just as he was applying for citizenship. Hugo Miguel Vaz, a curator of the museum, has been identified as the person who repeatedly edited the Russian’s Wikipedia entries in English and Portuguese, allegedly playing up his Jewish heritage.