The Italian, 44-year-old Antonio Papaleo, was stabbed twice during the attack, early on Thursday morning (July 3), by a gang composed mostly of teenagers, at least one of them a girl. The two wounds wrecked his spleen, which was removed in an operation on Friday.
Most of the gang were caught and the ringleader, Ekawat “Ek” Nilaku, 20, confessed to carrying out the attack, and another one on a Russian woman tourist about half an hour later in Kata. She, too, was stabbed, though little damage was done.
Mr Papaleo is an investigative journalist who runs the Italian-language news website La Voce della Slovacchia (The Voice of Slovakia). He is also a key witness in the Hong Kong trial of Slovak national Juraj Jariabka, charged with running a money laundering ring that stretched from Eastern Europe to Dubai and Hong Kong.
In 2012 Mr Papaleo infiltrated the ring by pretending to be a corrupt journalist, “Tony Corleone”, addicted to alcohol and drugs. The gang used him to open companies and bank accounts for use in money laundering. Using a pinhole camera he captured video evidence essential to the prosecution.
Since his true role came to light, he has been subject to threats, not just from the gang – who would be happy to see him dead – but even from a Beijing-based Slovak diplomat.
The organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued an appeal on June 23 for authorities in Slovakia, Italy and elsewhere to give Mr Papaleo protection.
It explained, “After travelling to Hong Kong to open two bank accounts for this purpose, [Mr Papaleo] tried to report what he had learned to the Czech and Slovak authorities, and to Interpol, on his return but they showed little interest.
“So Papaleo went back to Hong Kong and reported his findings to the Special Bureau for Narcotic and Financial Crimes, which took him seriously and began an investigation.
“After the Hong Kong police arrested the head of the ring in May 2013, Papaleo received several death threats. Since then, the Hong Kong police have been asking the European authorities in vain to provide him with protection.”
So when he was stabbed on Thursday in Phuket, his first thought – and the first thought of people who knew about him – was that the gang had tracked him and this was an assassination attempt.
After the attack, and after being alerted to his background, The Phuket News and other English-language news operations in Phuket decided not to disclose his name out of concern for his safety.
Then, in the press conference staged by police a day later to announce the capture of his attacker, Mr Papaleo’s name was announced. The police had no way at that time of knowing his circumstances.
Mr Papaleo decided that, rather than hide, his best chances of avoiding a murder attempt as he lay helpless in a bed in a public hospital ward would be to get as much press coverage as possible.
He told The Phuket News yesterday, “I’m not very well, basically. The operation was fine from what they tell me but they had to remove my spleen because it was totally ruined.
“I’ve been under morphine for four days so I’m not very bright and sharp.”
Asked about his decision to go public, he explained, “The point is very simple. Either I’m the most unlucky person in the universe to be robbed and assaulted in Thailand – which is possible – or this is somehow connected with my guys – my bad guys – searching for me.
“In either case I don’t think that revealing my name and location will put me in more danger than I am in now.
“I just finished talking with Benjamin [Ismail, the head of the RSF Asia-Pacific desk] and he was for keeping my name hidden.
“But I don’t think this will make any difference, frankly.”
When told that his name had already been revealed in the press conference he said, “That’s another reason not to be concerned about keeping my name hidden.” All things considered, he added, he felt that full exposure would keep him safer.
When The Phuket News spoke with him, he was in a public ward. The newspaper contacted the island’s chief of police, Pol Maj Gen Krajang Suwannarat, to acquaint him with the circumstances.
Mr Papaleo, The Phuket News has been told by the hospital, is now in a private room with police protection.
He is likely to spend at least another week in hospital, and another two weeks convalescing until he is in shape to travel comfortably.
The Hong Kong Newspaper, the South China Morning Post, has run a number of stories about the trial and the threats against Mr Papaleo. With his support the newspaper this morning published a story about the Karon stabbing, naming him.