/ 14 June 2008

SA won’t extradite Mafioso

The Justice Department has rejected the Italian authorities’ request for the extradition of convicted Mafia boss Vito Palazzolo to serve a nine-year jail sentence because it does not consider an Italian court’s conviction of him “definitive”.

This was told to the Mail & Guardian this week by Italian embassy counsellor Pier Forlano.

Palazzolo, alias Robert von Palace Kolbatschenko, has lived in South Africa since the late 1980s. Two years ago he was convicted in absentia in Italy for Mafia links.

Forlano said the Palermo court which sentenced Palazzolo issued an extradition order.

But “the extradition was not granted because [for] the South African authorities the sentence reached in Italy was considered not definitive”.

The Italian embassy was still “following up with the prosecution office in Palermo … so we are still working on this”.

He referred further queries to the Justice Department.

But justice department spokesperson Zolile Nqai insisted “there has never been an extradition order” for Palazzolo. “The Department of Justice is unaware of an extradition order. It was never made to us,” Nqai said.

The M&G has learned that an extradition order was indeed issued, but was “stopped or indefinitely delayed” by the South African government.

A member of the South African Police Service (SAPS) said: “Through Interpol the order was made. We learned it was then that Palazzolo moved large sections of his business interests — mainly diamond cutting — to Namibia until the dust settled here.”

When Palazzolo was sentenced in Palermo in July 2006, the judges found that he should be taken into custody as a member of the Partinico Mafia family and associate of Barnardo Provenzano, the Mafia capo di capi (boss of bosses) arrested in 2006 after decades on the run.

Palazzolo has consistently denied Mafia links, despite the Palermo court’s finding and his conviction and imprisonment in Switzerland in the mid-1980s for money laundering as part of a complex international heroin trading ring.

Known as “the pizza connection”, the ring supplied heroin through a chain of American pizza restaurants. After escaping from prison and fleeing to South Africa, Palazzolo was extradited back to Switzerland and returned to South Africa when he had served his sentence.

He controversially was granted South African citizenship in 1995. It is widely believed that powerful political friends in South Africa are protecting him. “You don’t mess with that man, he has friends in high places and is very securely and confidently entrenched in South Africa,” a member of the SAPS told the M&G.

Some years ago Palazzolo’s business interests were largely “sold” to Count Riccardo Agusta, the businessman who pleaded guilty in the corruption scandal involving former National Party politician Peter Marais and a business partner of Palazzolo’s son.

Palazzolo has said that he does not accept the Italian verdict.