CRIME

Macau gambling kingpin facing charges in the US was an envoy for San Marino

Paul Phua, who faces charges in the US, never completed procedures to become ambassador to Montenegro; had status revoked after arrest

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 July, 2014, 12:53pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 July, 2014, 3:20pm

Asian gambling kingpin and alleged triad member Paul Phua Wei-seng was San Marino's ambassador to Montenegro for more than three years until the tiny city state revoked his diplomatic status shortly after his arrest in Las Vegas earlier this month on illegal betting charges.

The 50-year-old Macau junket operator was nominated to be the European microstate's ambassador in 2011 and has held a diplomatic passport since then, according to the San Marino Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The tiny country is located in central Italy. 

Phua had, however, never submitted his credentials to the Montenegrin authorities, a step which would formalise his ambassadorship, the foreign ministry of the former Yugoslav republic said.

The development adds another twist to the evolving saga of the Malaysian businessman, who rose to be one of Macau's top junket operators. He later became a leading figure in global online gambling, a grey industry worth trillions of Hong Kong dollars every year, industry sources told the South China Morning Post.

A native of the Sarawak beach town of Miri, Phua is understood to hold shares in IBCBet, one of the world's largest online betting platforms based in the Philippines.

Court documents seen by the Post show that US prosecutors also believe that he is a "high-ranking" member of the 14K, one of Hong Kong's oldest and most notorious triads. He is currently under house arrest in Las Vegas awaiting a pre-trial hearing on charges of running an illegal gambling operation.

Phua adamantly denies the allegations. His lawyers said: "Mr Phua will defend himself vigorously in court."

San Marino's government nominated Phua as a non-resident ambassador to Montenegro on February 1, 2011, according to archival documents. The parliament's foreign affairs committee approved his nomination.

In his bail application, his lawyers stated that he was San Marino's ambassador to Montenegro and held a diplomatic passport from San Marino.

The Montenegro and San Marino foreign ministries, however, told the Post that Phua was never formally recognised as the republic's envoy.

Phua "did not present [his] letter of credence to the President of the State Mr Filip Vujanovic, which is why he didn't start his diplomatic mandate," a spokesperson for Montenegro's foreign ministry wrote in an email.

Earlier this month, San Marino rescinded Phua's nomination and asked him to return his diplomatic passport, a San Marino foreign ministry spokesperson told the Post.

Phua's appointment did not come without controversy. In June 2011, two members of the city-state's parliament filed written questions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking it to explain the appointment.

Later in the year, local news website Libertas reported that the city-state's then foreign minister Antonella Mularoni called Phua "a man of the chips", who could build on his ties in the entertainment sector to bring a luxury hotel project to San Marino. The hotel has not been built.

In a similar case in 2007, San Marino had to recall its ambassador to the Bahamas during the fourth year of his diplomatic stint after discovering that the two countries did not have diplomatic ties.