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Thai police say Italian banker can be extradited


April 1, 2012: The exterior of Thai Immigration Police detention center where Vito Roberto Palazzolo, a fugitive Italian banker implicated in the "Pizza Connection" drug and money laundering trial, is being held for questioning. (AP)

Thai police said Monday that a fugitive Italian banker who was detained in Bangkok last week can legally be sent to Italy even though the two countries do not have an extradition treaty.

Col. Chartchai Eimsaeng, deputy investigation chief of Thailand's immigration police, said Vito Roberto Palazzolo could be sent to Italy to serve a nine-year prison sentence for Mafia association because of a criminal cooperation agreement signed by both countries.

Palazzolo, 64, who was implicated in the "Pizza Connection" drug and money laundering trial, was detained Friday as he prepared to board a flight to South Africa, his adopted homeland, where he lives under the name of Robert von Palace Kolbatschenko. He was the subject of an Interpol "Red Notice" issued at Italy's request. A Red Notice asks for a wanted person's detention for the purpose of extradition.

Thai police were tipped off to Palazzolo's whereabouts by Sicilian Carabinieri agents who had been monitoring Facebook and other social media postings by Palazzolo and his family, according to the Carabinieri.

In 2009, Italy's highest court upheld Palazzolo's 2006 conviction and nine-year sentence for his Mafia ties. Prosecutors allege that while working in Switzerland as a banker, Palazzolo laundered money for some of Italy's top mobsters, a charge he denies.

Palazzolo has acknowledged that in 1982, while working as a banker in Switzerland, he returned about $6 million in funds to the Mafia after being threatened by the mob. He said he was made a scapegoat in the "Pizza Connection" case since he was a lone Sicilian working in Swiss banks that were accused of laundering drug money for the mob.

The "Pizza Connection" investigation broke a $1.6 billion heroin and cocaine smuggling operation that used New York pizzerias as fronts from 1975 to 1984.

On Monday, officials from the Italian and South African embassies met with Thai immigration police to discuss the case. Chartchai said South Africa had waived any claim on Palazzolo and agreed he could be sent to Italy if the authorities there can verify that he is the same person for whom they have issued an arrest warrant.

Chartchai said the extradition process could take two months. He said Thai authorities are detaining Palazzolo on immigration charges after canceling his visa.