BANGKOK (AP) — A Thai court on Thursday ordered the extradition of a fugitive Italian banker found guilty of laundering money for some of Italy's top mobsters through New York pizzerias in the 1970s and '80s.
Handcuffed and dressed in an orange prison uniform, Vito Roberto Palazzolo told a judge, "This is not the rule of law!" Guards then escorted him to a prison van where he commented to reporters, "I'm very happy to go back home."
Palazzolo was convicted in Italy in 2006 following the "Pizza Connection" investigation, which exposed a $1.6 billion heroin and cocaine smuggling operation that used New York pizzerias as fronts from 1975 to 1984. He was sentenced to nine years in prison for links to the Mafia.
The 65-year-old Sicilian was arrested at Bangkok's airport on March 30 as he prepared to board a flight to South Africa, his adopted homeland, where he went by the name Robert von Palace Kolbatschenko.
Palazzolo's visibly shaken wife, Tirtza, called the ruling "a disgrace to Thailand" and told reporters she hoped to block the extradition on appeal.
The Criminal Court in Bangkok said the extradition would take at least 30 days, mainly to process paperwork, during which time Palazzolo can file an appeal.
Thai police were tipped off by Italian authorities who had been monitoring Facebook and other social media postings by Palazzolo and his family. 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.
Prosecutors alleged that while working in Switzerland as a banker, Palazzolo laundered money for some of Italy's top mobsters, a charge he denies. Italy's highest court in 2009 upheld Palazzolo's conviction and sentence for Mafia association.
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 alleged that he was made a scapegoat in the Pizza Connection case because he was the only Sicilian working in Swiss banks that were accused of laundering drug money for the mob.
Italian authorities said in a statement after his arrest in Thailand that the Pizza Connection probe "showed the central role of the Sicilian Mafia in the refining and trafficking of heroin, the proceeds of which were largely laundered by Palazzolo."
Palazzolo has written about his legal woes and getting swept up in the Pizza Connection probe on his website, www.vrpalazzolo.com.
He changed his name to Robert von Palace Kolbatschenko in the 1990s, he said, to help escape the media and live unobserved. He denied the name change was aimed at sidestepping the law.
Associated Press writer Elisa Mala contributed to this report.