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Man on the run: Italian journalist Antonio Papaleo talked to Phuketwan

Fugitive Says, Thank You Phuket

Saturday, July 12, 2014
PHUKET: A fugitive journalist at the centre of a money-laundering investigation that stretches across four countries has one thing to say to the people of Phuket: Thank you.

Italian Antonio Papaleo, 45, threatened with death by some he is trying to expose, is now in hiding on the Thai holiday island where a local robber attempted to kill him last week.

Despite the danger, he agreed to meet and to talk with us, near his Phuket sanctuary. And the point he wanted to make was that he is extremely grateful to people on Phuket for their generosity.

After he was attacked by a gang of eight youths, pulled off a motorcycle with his female Russian companion then beaten and stabbed, the doctors at Vachira Phuket Hospital removed his spleen.

Once Phuket police learned that he was a protected witness in a Hong Kong money-laundering investigation that stretched to Europe, they responded rapidly to a request to provide round-the-clock guards.

Now that he has finally shaken off the morphine and his hospital hangover, Mr Papaleo still looks frail and in need of further recuperation. He walks slowly. His waist is tightly bound.

But he has a glint in his eye and a couple of good friends who are taking good care of him at a secret destination.

We discussed his background - it is a long way from Palermo to Phuket. But Mr Papaleo had brought some papers that he wanted us to see.

First, there was a bill from the hospital for 140,000 baht. ''Because of what happened to me, the hospital cut the bill to 100,000 baht,'' he said.

And then, there was a letter from Thailand's Tourism and Sport Ministry, telling him that the department would meet the rest of his bill.

We shook our heads and marvelled at the way people everywhere come to your assistance when they can see someone in trouble who is genuinely trying to solve some of the world's problems.

Once his identity became known and it was revealed that the highly-regarded international group, Reporters Without Borders, had called for his protection, everyone on Phuket helped as best they could.

Meanwhile, the media in Hong Kong, Italy and the Czech and Slovak republics picked up on the Phuket stabbing and made Mr Papaleo front-page news.

He credits Italian performers Natalino Balasso and Lucio Salis, and a couple of other well-known entertainers, for spreading the word through their Facebook and social media outlets that he was in trouble and needed help.

And without prompting, a group called the Rory Peck Trust came to his financial support. The future was not all gloom and despair.

So, as journalists tend to do when they meet, we talked about the world and where it was heading and almost forgot the reason why we had come, and who was the interviewer and who was the subject.

His undercover work, exposing the alleged money-launderers by opening accounts in Hong Kong, led to a case that will continue from August 12.

He told an Italian newspaper: "It took me two years to infiltrate the East European underworld. I pretended to work for them for three months in Hong Kong. Why all this? Because I'm a journalist.''

We shared our own experiences in covering the saga of the Rohingya boatpeople, and the Royal Thai Navy's sadly misguided court action in an attempt to end our reporting.

In one instance, Thailand's reputation will continue to be damaged unless it begins dealing with human trafficking in a thorough and transparent manner.

In the case of Antonio Papaleo, the Italian media reports, at stake is the credibility of the Hong Kong banking system.

Time passes quickly. Then, because he is clearly still unwell, it's enough. He must go.

We wish him well and leave him in the safe hands of his good Phuket friends. The world is waiting to be changed.

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