INDEPENDENT 2024-04-11 16:11:06


Vietnamese billionaire sentenced to death in $27bn fraud case

A property tycoon has been sentenced to death by a court in Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam in the country’s largest financial fraud case.

Truong My Lan, 67, chair of real estate company Van Thinh Phat (VTP), was accused of fraud amounting to $12.5bn (£10bn).

Prosecutors alleged Lan illegally controlled the Saigon Joint Stock Commercial Bank (SCB) between 2012 and 2022 to siphon off these funds through thousands of ghost companies and by paying bribes to government officials.

Prosecutors said that more than 2,500 loans were allowed from the bank, resulting in losses of $27bn. It is a figure equivalent to 6 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2023. Police identified around 42,000 victims of the scandal.

From early 2018 through October 2022, when the state bailed out SCB after a run on its deposits, Lan appropriated large sums by arranging unlawful loans to shell companies, investigators alleged. Former central bank official Do Thi Nhan was also sentenced to life in prison on Thursday for accepting $5.2m in bribes.

Under Vietnamese law, individuals are prohibited from holding more than five per cent of the shares in any bank. Through Lan’s shell companies, as well as people acting as her proxies, it is believed she actually owned more than 90 per cent of SCB. Her loans made up 93 per cent of all the bank’s lending.

“I am so angry that I was stupid enough to get involved in this very fierce business environment – the banking sector – which I have little knowledge of,” Lan is reported to have said during final remarks to the court last week, according to state media. Prosecutors were also quoted as saying she pleaded not guilty.

Lan’s arrest in October 2022 was among the most high-profile in an ongoing anti-corruption drive in Vietnam that has intensified in the last two years.

The so-called Blazing Furnace campaign, led by the Communist Party general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, has touched the highest echelons of Vietnamese politics, with former president Vo Van Thuong resigning in March after being implicated in the campaign. Another president and two deputy prime ministers have also been forced to resign, while hundreds of officials have been disciplined or jailed.

But it is the scale of Lan’s trial that has shocked the nation, with VTP among Vietnam’s richest real estate firms, working on projects including luxury residential buildings, offices, hotels and shopping centres.

The prosecution alleged that more than $4bn of the loans were withdrawn by her driver, over a period of three years from February 2019, and stored in her basement. That amount of cash, even if it was all in Vietnam’s largest denomination banknotes, would weigh at least two tonnes.

The habitually secretive communist authorities, led by Mr Trong, were uncharacteristically open with this case as they continued their crackdown on corruption.

They said 2,700 people were summoned to testify, while 10 state prosecutors and around 200 lawyers were involved. The evidence, meanwhile, contained in 104 boxes, weighed a staggering six tonnes. Eighty-five defendants were tried alongside Lan.

MasterChef judge Monica Galetti to close London restaurant

MasterChef star Monica Galetti has announced the imminent closure of her London restaurant, Mere, as post-Brexit rules continue to savage the UK hospitality industry.

The Samoan-New Zealand chef told patrons of the upmarket establishment on Wednesday (10 April) that it was the “right time” to close its doors.

A message on the website reads: “It is with heavy hearts that we announce the closure of Mere restaurant – but we feel this is the right time after 7yrs!”

The final service at Mere will take place on Tuesday 16 April.

Galetti, known to many for being a judge on MasterChef: The Professionals, established the restaurant in 2017 with her husband, David Galetti.

Named after Galetti’s mother, Mere specialises in South Pacific and French cuisines, and is described as “an elegant and contemporary restaurant, offering a relaxed yet refined dining experience”.

Earlier this year, the restaurant appeared in the Michelin guide as “recommended”, one level below the accolade of a Michelin star.

While Galetti has not detailed the specifics behind her decision, the closure comes amid an increasingly difficult time for Britain’s hospitality sector.

This week, strict new post-Brexit rules came into force preventing thousands of Italian waiters from moving to the capital to work in restaurants.

New British regulation raised the minimum salary threshold for a skilled work visa from £26,000 to £38,700, beyond the pay for many restaurants which operate with tight margins.

Meanwhile, in January, it was reported that there were more than 10 venue closures every day, with industry data revealing that the number of licensed premises in Britain fell by 3.6 per cent from 103,682 to 99,916 in the year to September.

The hospitality industry says it is crumbling under the joint pressures of rocketing energy, rent, and food bills, staff shortages, and no-show bookings, amid the ongoing cost of living crisis and the after-effects of Covid and Brexit.

A survey last year by the Office for National Statistics laid bare the damage that has been done to the industry by leaving the EU. In just two years the number of jobs held by EU nationals in food and accomodation services fell by 25 per cent.

Celebrity chef and restaurateur Tom Kerridge told The Independent in January that the hospitality sector is facing “a number of massive issues”, with his business having lost more than £1m since Covid hit.

Previously, Galetti left her position on the BBC show in 2022 due to struggling with the balance of running a restaurant and spending time with her family, alongside filming.

Speaking on The One Show at the time, Galetti explained: “I’ve only been able to commit time to the show for three months when my team are strong, and I can have the balance of family, the restaurant and all my other commitments.”

She added: “When I’m filming, people don’t realise I do a 12-hour day of filming, and then I will get back to the restaurant in the evening.

“But at the moment, things are just out of sync, things are tough at the moment.”

Galetti’s nephew had also received a cancer diagnosis, which had contributed to her decision to step back from filming. However, she rejoined the programme after a year.

Though Galetti gave no specific reason for the restaurant’s closure, it comes as the hospitality industry continues to report difficulties amid a tough economic climate.

The Independent has contacted Galetti for comment.

Investigation to find out why Brianna’s sadistic killer was put in vulnerable teenager’s class

A “sadistic” killer’s placement in a classroom alongside vulnerable trans teenager Brianna Ghey will be investigated at the inquest into her death, a court has heard.

Brianna, 16, was lured to a park by schoolmate Scarlett Jenkinson and her friend Eddie Ratcliffe, both 15 at the time, where she was stabbed 28 times with a hunting knife on February 11 last year.

Both killers were jailed for life earlier this year with trial judge Mrs Justice Yip ruling the “frenzied” and “brutal” murder had elements of sadism, with a secondary motive being the victim’s trans identity.

Brianna had been a pupil at Birchwood High School, Warrington, where she was befriended by Jenkinson after she had transferred from Culcheth High School following an incident where pupils were given cannabis-laced sweets.

Following her “managed transfer” from Culcheth, where Ratcliffe was a pupil, within weeks Jenkinson became obsessed by Brianna and began plotting her murder with Ratcliffe.

From age 14, Jenkinson had enjoyed watching videos of real killing and torture on the dark web, fantasised about murder and developed an interest in serial killers, her murder trial heard.

At a pre-inquest hearing at Warrington Coroner’s Court on Thursday, Jacqueline Devonish, senior coroner for Cheshire, outlined the scope of the inquest later this year, before lawyers representing both schools and children’s services at Warrington Borough Council. Brianna’s mother, Esther Ghey, also attended the hearing.

Ms Devonish said: “I think essentially, matters around safeguarding that we are going to be concerned with.

“How it is Brianna was brought into contact with Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe.

“In my view, that’s the starting point, and we know that the schools will have information around that, and that’s where we are going with this investigation.

“Whether it could reasonably have been foreseen that Brianna might have been placed at risk in the inclusion room with Scarlett Jenkinson.

“Whether Birchwood High School was appropriately placed to manage Brianna and Scarlett Jenkinson together in light of their histories and safeguarding considerations.”

Ms Devonish said the inquest will examine the “appropriateness or thoroughness” of the decision around the school transfer, along with Brianna’s behaviour and mental health.

The coroner also said she will also examine whether Brianna was appropriately supported by relevant agencies involved with supporting people with issues of gender, eating disorders and mental health.

Agencies named at the hearing included the Gender GP counselling service and the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS).

A further pre-inquest review will be held on August 9, before a full three-day inquest starting later this year on October 23.

Pompeii’s last secret? Stunning frescos unearthed at ancient buried city

Fascinating artworks have been uncovered in a new excavation at Pompeii, the ancient Roman city doomed and buried by Mount Vesuvius’s deadly eruption in AD79.

The most impressive discovery is an expansive fresco that depicts the Greek legend Helen of Troy, painted on the high walls of a large banqueting hall that was thought to be owned by a high-status politician.

One third of the lost city is still yet to be cleared of volcanic debris, ash and pumice, but the current dig has led to the discovery of artefacts that underline Pompeii’s position as a bastion of the Roman Empire.

The banqueting room was discovered to hold several frescos, including two set-piece frescos. In the first piece, the god Apollo is seen trying to seduce the priestess Cassandra – but according to legend, her rejection of his pursuits led to her prophecies being ignored. The tragic aftermath of that rejection is depicted in the second painting, which sees Prince Paris meeting Helen – a union Cassandra knows will end in the Trojan War and doom them all.

The remains of the dining hall are without a ceiling or roof, since it collapsed during the eruption. What’s left is tall black walls, on which the frescos are painted.

The room is the most impressive hidden treasure to emerge from the excavation that began 12 months ago, and it will feature in a documentary series from the BBC and Lion TV to be broadcast later in April.

Archaeologists and restorers have installed scaffolding and temporary roofing will be going over the top, and plaster glue has been injected into the walls to prevent the frescoes from peeling away.

The current excavation area, referred to by experts as region nine, has thrown all sorts of discoveries – they located what is thought to be a bakery and a laundry nearby the building where the grand dining room is located.

The only skeletons from the dig have been discovered in the bakery; two adults and a child who were crushed by falling stones. It is thought that they may have been slaves who were trapped and could not flee the eruption.

The identity of the high-status individual who owned the building behind the bakery and laundry is hinted at in numerous inscriptions on the walls with the initials “ARV”, which archaeologists think is a reference to a wealthy Pompeii man called Aulus Rustius Verus.

“We know him from other political propaganda in Pompeii. He’s a politician. He’s super-rich. We think he may be the one who owns the posh house behind the bakery and the laundry,” park archaeologist Dr Sophie Hay told the BBC.

“When we excavate, we wonder what we’re looking at,” explained co-lead archaeologist Dr Gennaro Iovino.

“Much like a theatre stage, you have the scenery, the backdrop, and the culprit, which is Mount Vesuvius. The archaeologist has to be good at filling in the gaps – telling the story of the missing cast, the families and children, the people who are not there anymore.”

Paul McCartney shares ‘embarrassing’ Beatles blunder that made him want to quit

Sir Paul McCartney has said he suffered an “embarrassing” onstage blunder early on with The Beatles, which shaped the course of his career.

The 81-year-old served as the band’s lead vocalist alongside John Lennon, while also playing the bass guitar and writing some of their biggest hits including “Love Me Do” and “Yesterday”.

However, when The Beatles first started playing together, McCartney was most interested in being the lead guitarist – and tried his hand at it during their early performances.

In the latest episode of the podcast McCartney: A Life In Lyrics, the Liverpool-born musician recalled playing his first lead guitar solo during a gig when he froze up mid-performance and began to question his career path.

“We had this gig and it was the first thing I ever played, and I was lead guitar player,” he continued. “John [Lennon] was rhythm. I had a solo and I totally froze. Could not move my fingers.”

“It was just so embarrassing. My lead guitar playing career melted at that moment and I said, ‘Well, I’m not doing this again. I’m not cut out for this. I’m no good.’”

The Beatles, also made up of Ringo Starr and George Harrison, were originally formed in 1960, and with McCartney eventually as lead vocalist and bass guitarist, they went on to make generational classics including “Hey Jude” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”.

Last week, McCartney expressed his joy at Beyoncé’s moving cover of “Blackbird”, the civil rights-inspired song he released with The Beatles in 1968, which features on her new album Cowboy Carter.

The American popstar sings her version of the track with Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer, Tiera Kennedy and Reyna Roberts, championing the four emerging female country singers.

“I am so happy with Beyoncé’s version of my song ‘Blackbird’,” McCartney, 81, said in an Instagram post.

“I think she does a magnificent job of it and it reinforces the civil rights message that inspired me to write the song in the first place.

“I think Beyoncé has done a fab version and would urge anyone who has not heard it yet to check it out. You are going to love it!”

McCartney revealed that he spoke with Beyoncé on FaceTime, where she thanked him for writing the song: “I told her the pleasure was all mine and I thought she had done a killer version of the song.”

He continued: “When I saw the footage on the television in the early Sixties of the Black girls being turned away from school, I found it shocking and I can’t believe that still in these days there are places where this kind of thing is happening right now.

“Anything my song and Beyoncé’s fabulous version can do to ease racial tension would be a great thing and makes me very proud.”

McCartney has previously said he wrote the song after he “heard about the civil rights troubles” that were happening in America during the 1960s, predominantly in the deep south in states like Alabama and Mississippi.

The latest episodes of Paul McCartney: A Life in Lyrics are available on all major streaming platforms.

The best beach breaks in Italy: from idyllic islands to chic rivieras

Italy is renowned for la dolce vita, or living ‘the sweet life’ and you’ll find no better place to do that than basking on one of the country’s gorgeous beaches. With a whopping 4,723 miles of coastline, dotted with some of the most beautiful seaside towns and stretches of sand in the world, you can swim in clear, azure waters, then sip cocktails under a stylish striped parasol. Whether you head for one of Italy’s beautiful lakes or one of its stunning islands, you’re guaranteed the perfect escape.

To help you find that perfect beach holiday this summer, travel experts Jet2holidays offer great-value breaks in more than 50 amazing destinations, including six in Italy. Hotspots and hidden gems, all boards and budgets, flexible stays and fab flight times – there’s something for everyone. With just a £60pp deposit*, 22kg baggage included and flexible monthly payments** to help spread the cost of your well-deserved holiday, it’s never been easier to get that dreamy Italian getaway booked.

What’s more, with the Jet2holidays sale now on, you can enjoy even better value on your break with up to £240 off† all holidays. Simply sign up for a myJet2 account, visit your independent travel agent or call the Jet2holidays contact centre. Book now and let the countdown to sunshine begin.

Here’s our pick of some of the best beach destinations Italy has to offer….

Italy’s largest island sits in the Mediterranean to the west of the mainland and offers rugged nature and crystal-clear seas all the way from Sardinia’s glitzy resorts of the Costa Smeralda in the north to the unspoilt southern coast.

A stay at the Grand Hotel Smeraldo Beach, close to the glamorous resort of Porto Cervo, gives you access to a private beach as well as four swimming pools, while nearby Club Hotel Baja Sardinia (main picture, above) is set back from the picturesque, rocky Cala Battistoni beach where it has its own reserved section for guests. Not far from either hotel is Spiaggia Rena Bianca, a swathe of pale sand and clear, shallow waters, often labelled as one of the island’s best beaches.

Further down the northeastern coast, check into the elegant Hotel Calacuncheddi, just a stone’s throw from the striking Li Cuncheddi beach where the clear waters are perfect for snorkelling. Not far is Cala Brandinchi, nicknamed ‘Little Tahiti’ for its thin arc of soft, talc-like sand lapped by crystalline turquoise waters and surrounded by pine trees.

Floating just off the toe of Italy’s boot, Sicily is a true sunshine paradise. Base yourself at the luxurious Delta Hotels by Marriott Giardini Naxos, a relaxing retreat on the island’s northeast coast with its own private beach. Just a 20-minute drive away is the picture-perfect hilltop town of Taormina, which you might recognise from series two of The White Lotus.

Head to Spiaggia di Isola Bella, a semicircular pebble beach reached by cable car, and swim in the translucent waters of the surrounding marine park. Head north west to the coastal village of Scopello, where you’ll view striking rock formations from the breathtaking beach. Nearby, overlooked by the craggy Monte Monaco mountain, is San Vito Io Capo; think turquoise waters and golden sands fringed by palm trees.

Italy is peppered with hundreds of lakes, with the largest being Lake Garda. Check into the elegant, 19th century Grand Hotel Gardone Riviera, which sits on the lake’s western side and boasts a private bathing platform so you can slip right into the water. For a more traditional-style beach, head to the pebbly shores of Torbole at the northern tip of Garda, where you can enjoy stunning views across the crystalline waters and majestic mountains in the distance.

Blooming with hot pink bougainvillea and windswept pine trees is pretty Spiaggia Fonte Torrente San Giovanni in Limone sul Garda, on the lake’s western side. If you’re looking for more tropical vibes, head to Jamaica beach at the charming southern town of Sirmione, and don’t miss the alluring Parco Baia delle Sirene; located on the lake’s eastern shore, it offers calm, quiet waters and magical scenery.

You might not associate Venice with beaches, but the archipelago city is close to a region of pretty towns set along a picturesque bay known as the Venetian Riviera. As well as scenic harbours and historic architecture, youll find a handful of attractive stretches of sand. Lido di Jesolo is a traditional seaside town located just across the lagoon from Venice, featuring ten miles of golden Blue Flag beach.

Stay at the luxurious Almar Jesolo Resort and Spa, or the stylish Falkensteiner Hotel and Spa, both of which have their own private section on sweeping Jesolo beach. Further down the coast is busy Capannina Beach, where traders bearing trolleys of cold drinks and ice creams come straight to your sunlounger, while nearby, quieter Cavallino is the place to hire boats or pedalos for family fun.

Jet2holidays, the UK’s number one tour operator, offers package holidays you can trust where everything’s included. With you every step of the way, Jet2holidays has an incredible range of great-value, expert-rated getaways for all types of holidaymakers, across more than 50 stunning destinations. From the five-star luxury of Indulgent Escapes by Jet2holidays® to the compelling cities of Jet2CityBreaksVIBE by Jet2holidays for Insta-worthy stays that suit your style to family-friendly Jet2Villas, the boxes are ticked for every age, budget and interest. What’s more, with holidays secured for just £60pp deposit* and flexible payment options**, plus a host of perks like 22kg baggage and return transfers included††, it’s easy from start to finish. It’s all ABTA and ATOL-protected too, so you can enjoy sunshine with peace of mind. To find out more and book with the best, head here.

*On bookings made ten weeks or more before departure. **Terms and conditions apply. Please visit www.jet2holidays.com/part-payment for details. †Based on 4 people. On all holiday departures until 31 October 2025. T&Cs apply. See http://Jet2holidays.com/promotions#60OFFMYJET2SALE ††Transfers are not included as standard on Jet2CityBreaks. Jet2Villas packages include car hire instead of transfers.

Donald Trump’s plan for peace in Ukraine means no peace at all

It cannot have been a great surprise to the foreign secretary, David Cameron, that Donald Trump showed such little interest in supporting Ukraine’s war of resistance. Had Mr Trump wanted to see Ukraine receive the military assistance that Kyiv has been begging for, and which remains stalled in the House of Representatives, he’d have given it the nod months ago, and the Republican caucus would have responded with alacrity.

The fact that Trump’s puppet, speaker of the House Mike Johnson, couldn’t find time in his diary to speak to His Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office speaks volumes for the indifference America feels for its allies and the weakness of the now almost satirically-styled “special relationship”.

We’re learning, if we had not already, the full gruesome nature of what lies behind the slogan “America First”. Mr Trump, as he’s already practically admitted, is not interested in helping President Biden get his plan through Congress; nor is he much bothered about the territorial integrity of Ukraine. He plainly regards the war as a waste of money and a lost cause – indeed, a cause for which he feels little sympathy.

How deep does the ‘honeytrap’ plot go?

It is not quite a week since the (now ex-Conservative) MP William Wragg confessed to the press that he’d been the victim of a “honeytrap” blackmail plot. Someone he’d met on the Grindr dating website had pressured him into giving the contact numbers for (about 20) politicians and journalists. Some have come out and described the strange, unsolicited messages and/or rude photographs sent to them.

After initially treating Wragg as a victim and taking no action against him, there are reports that some in the cabinet believe there should have been more serious consequences for his foolishness. Other colleagues and former colleagues have been even less generous. It appears that Wragg is in an emotionally vulnerable position and his allies feel that a duty of care and some compassion would be appropriate.

In the last few days, Wragg has voluntarily stepped down from his positions as vice-chair of the backbench 1922 Committee and chair of the House of Commons select committee on public administration and constitutional affairs, in which role Wragg was seen asking the prime minister if he was “part of the deep state”. He has now also renounced the Conservative whip, reportedly of his own accord. He announced in November 2022 that he would not contest the next election; his seat will, in any case, almost certainly fall to the Liberal Democrats. It’s not clear if Wragg remains a now ironic member of the Conservative Common Sense Group: probably not.