In September last year, when the mother and younger brother of Greek-Nigerian NBA star Giannis Antetokounmpo were granted honorary Greek citizenship in a special ceremony in Athens, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was in attendance.
When historian Mark Mazower received the honour in January, Interior Minister Makis Voridis was present, while in July, when it was the turn of musicologist Christopher King for his study and promotion of Greek folk music, Mitsotakis was there again.
The presence of senior state officials at such ceremonies has come to be expected. Yet when Turkish national Yasam Ayavefe was granted honorary citizenship in mid-June, there was no ceremony whatsoever, nor glowing tribute from the government.
The Greek public had to wait for investigative outlet ‘inside story’ to break the news on July 7, triggering fierce debate over Ayavefe’s suitability for such an honour. For Ayavefe is no musicologist or historian, and certainly no wizard on the basketball court.
He is a businessman who already holds three citizenships, who was convicted by a Turkish court in 2017 of defrauding online gamblers, and who was arrested in Greece in 2019 trying to cross the border into Bulgaria on a false passport.
Somehow, Ayavefe overcame the odds to win Greek protection from the long arm of Turkish law, and in doing so effectively turned a state honour long reserved for those who have made significant contribution to the promotion of Greek culture into a ‘Golden Visa’ scheme for those with deep pockets.
Wanted in Turkey, protected in Greece
Ayavefe, 39, has a range of business interests – from tourism and gambling in the Turkish-populated breakaway republic of northern Cyprus to a venture capital firm in the UK and investments in blockchain.
But it was his gift of medical equipment to Greece during the COVID-19 pandemic and his real estate investments in the country that were cited by the government as grounds for granting him honorary citizenship, signed by President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and Interior Minister Voridis.
His case signals a change in practice under the current conservative government, said Nikos Odubitan, managing director at Generation 2.0, a non-profit working on migrants’ rights.
“We have noticed an increase in honorary citizenships in the last one and a half years; more and more they are related to big businessmen, for whom neither their connection with Greece nor what kind of exceptional services they have really offered are obvious,” said Odubitan.
Perhaps more worrying is the fact that, by law, anyone with a criminal conviction cannot qualify for honorary citizenship, yet this rule appears to have been waived in the case of Ayavefe.
“This is the first time we have seen honorary citizenship given to someone who, through a simple search on the Internet, appears to be involved in illegal activities,” said Odubitan.
In March 2017, an Istanbul court sentenced Ayavefe to three years and four months in prison after he was convicted of scamming online gamblers over a period of a year, between 2008 and 2009.
Via gambling websites they had created themselves, Ayavefe and his partners “directed the game as they chose, won when they wanted, and thereby gained unfair advantage,” the court determined, in a copy of the ruling provided to Greek authorities by Turkey.
On July 13, 2018, the Istanbul General Prosecutor’s Office issued a warrant for Ayavefe’s arrest in order to serve his term, but Ayavefe, by then, was in Greece.
In February the following year, Ayavefe was arrested by Greek police as he attempted to cross the border into Bulgaria on a fake Greek passport. Turkey initiated the procedure to have him extradited to serve his sentence for fraud.
A court in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, gave his extradition the green light on July 25, 2019, but Ayavefe appealed and, roughly a month later, was granted asylum in Greece after arguing that, as a Christian, he was at risk if returned to Turkey. He argued that his conviction in Turkey was unfounded.
The Higher Court found little wrong with his conviction, but accepted that he risked ‘persecution’ in Turkey if extradited, given his faith and his position as “a member of a group of dissidents opposed to the political regime in Turkey.”
Legal experts, speaking to Solomon and BIRN, questioned the grounds for the protection granted to Ayavefe. At the time, according to documents submitted to Companies House in the UK, Ayavefe was a citizen of three states – Turkey, Serbia and Dominica.
“If the reason for him being in need of international protection was indeed that Ayavefe is a Christian, he should have proved to the asylum service why Serbia, a Christian country, was not safe enough for him,” said a legal expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Ayavefe, nevertheless, walked free. According to a statement issued by Interior Minister Voridis on July 8, he went on to buy a private residence valued at 1.65 million euros and invested 10 million euros in the shares of a company running a hotel on the party island of Mykonos.
When COVID-19 struck, Ayavefe made a series of donations totalling more than one million euros to the Greek public health service, local municipalities and church foundations.
On May 23, he was baptised as a Christian in the port town of Piraeus and received the name Leonidas. When it came to his honorary citizenship, two letters of recommendation were submitted – one penned by Development and Investments Minister Adonis Georgiadis, who cited Ayavefe’s ongoing investments in the country, and another by the bishop of Piraeus, who highlighted his donations to the church and its foundations.
The Companies House documents show that, on July 6 this year, Ayavefe changed his nationality on his company’s registration to Greek. He was first listed as Serbian, then Turkish, then Dominican.
Dominica is a Caribbean island country where foreigners can essentially buy citizenship by investing a minimum of $100,000, securing for the individual in question visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to more than 115 countries around the world.
Responding to the public outcry over Ayavefe’s honorary citizenship, Georgiadis, the minister who recommended him, said that he faced being “tortured to death” if extradited to Turkey. He did not explain why asylum would not be sufficient to protect him from such a fate.
In the weeks since, the government has portrayed Ayavefe as a political dissident, but sources familiar with his case, including a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity, paint a different picture.
They say that Ayavefe has close ties to the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, TRNC, which is recognised only by Turkey as an independent state.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Ayavefe made a medical donation to the TRNC. He also has investments in luxury apartments as well as a hotel and casino in Kyrenia in northern Cyprus.
Sources in Cyprus told Solomon and BIRN that Ayavefe previously lived between London and the TRNC. They dispute the claim that Ayavefe was at risk of political persecution from authorities under Erdogan; if that were the case, he would be unable to invest in the TRNC either.
According to these sources, Ayavefe was forced to leave the TRNC not for political reasons but due to a rivalry with other gambling figures.
For Odubitan, from Generation 2.0, the case only highlights how unfair the system has become.
“How is it possible that children and young people born and raised in Greece wait more than four years after their application to obtain citizenship, while at the same time people of dubious activity and with no connection to Greece are naturalised overnight?”