Hong Kong banks make money laundering easy for criminals, journalist tells court

Italian journalist tells court that city makes it easy to launder money through front companies

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 May, 2014, 4:22am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 May, 2014, 9:21am

An Italian journalist who mounted an undercover operation to expose a suspected eastern European gangster told the District Court yesterday how easy it was to set up a money-laundering operation in Hong Kong.

Key prosecution witness Antonio Papaleo said he was hired by defendant Juraj Jariabka to come to Hong Kong with the express purpose of setting up front companies and opening bank accounts to launder the proceeds of crime.

Papaleo told the court he was able to register two companies using out-of-date documents and that a local bank - identified by the prosecution as Standard Chartered - was willing to open an account for him regardless.

"The bank would take my already expired [Italian] proof of residence. They would take everything," said Papaleo, adding that he had no intention of going through with the scheme for fear of violating Hong Kong law.

"The bank had a very relaxed manner … I started to realise an expired proof of residence would be accepted by any Hong Kong bank."

Papaleo responded to the defendant's progress inquiries by fabricating excuses, but told the court that in reality he could have established the account in a couple of days.

Slovak national Jariabka denies one count of incitement to deal with property known or believed to represent proceeds of an indictable offence.

According to the former Italian national television reporter, the process of incorporating the two alleged front companies was also straightforward, with the employee responsible laughing off inquiries about the anti-money-laundering declaration.

"I asked her about the paper and she looked at me, started to laugh and said: 'This is the anti-money-laundering declaration,'" Papaleo told the court.

"She kept laughing and said: 'With this you declare not to launder money,' and then laughed again."

Papaleo had been in hiding since June last year, when Hong Kong police arrested Jariabka using video evidence obtained by the journalist using a hidden camera.

The men had returned to the city following an earlier visit in May to make another attempt to open a bank account.

In footage played for the court, Papaleo is heard trying to tease out the exact nature of the defendant's business activities, but being rebuffed.

However, Jariabka seemingly says, "It's not drugs, guns or tax," before adding:

"Ah well, tax would be the smallest problem."

As part of his investigation, Papaleo adopted the guise of a desperate drug addict and alcoholic in order to infiltrate the eastern European criminal underworld.

The case continues today.