Rio Tinto charged with fraud by US authorities

Coal falls from a conveyor beltImage copyright Getty Images

British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto and two of its former executives have been charged with fraud in the US, accused of hiding losses by inflating the value of African coal assets.

It bought the Mozambique assets in 2011 for $3.7bn (£2.8bn) and sold them a few years later for $50m.

The mining company has said it will "vigorously defend" the charges.

The firm was also fined £27m by UK authorities for breaching disclosure rules over the African coal purchase.

Both the US and UK actions relate to the Mozambique investment made by the mining firm six years ago.

A lawsuit filed in the US accuses Rio Tinto, its former chief executive Thomas Albanese and ex-chief financial officer Guy Elliott of failing to follow accounting standards and company policies to accurately value and record the assets.

Image copyright AFP Image caption Thomas Albanese, former chief executive of Rio Tinto

The US Securities and Exchange Commission argues that soon after the deal was completed, Rio Tinto learned that the projects would produce less coal, and of a lower quantity, than expected.

"Rio Tinto's top executives allegedly breached their disclosure obligations and corporate duties by hiding from their board, auditor, and investors the crucial fact that a multi-billion dollar transaction was a failure," SEC Enforcement Division co-director Stephanie Avakian said in a statement.

By making misleading claims the Anglo-Australian miner - one of the world's largest - was able to raise $5.5bn from US investors, the SEC said.

Rio Tinto said it "intends to vigorously defend itself against these allegations".

The firm added in a statement it believes the "SEC case is unwarranted and that, when all the facts are considered by the court, or if necessary by a jury, the SEC's claims will be rejected."

Largest ever UK fine

The miner separately reached a settlement with UK regulators for disclosure failures tied to the Mozambique investment.

It agreed to pay the Financial Conduct Authority £27 million to settle claims that it breached accounting rules in connection with the African coal assets.

The FCA said the fine is the largest ever imposed on a firm for a listing-rules breach....

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From torture victim to human rights student

Noreen Ahmed-Ullah Image caption Noura Al Jizawi has come to study in Toronto after escaping Syria's civil war

Noura Al Jizawi has survived more than a decade of extreme risk.Now she's going back to her interrupted life as a student.

Growing up in Homs in Syria, the 29 year old has been a student activist, experienced imprisonment and exile and has been a leader in Syria's opposition.

Now eight months pregnant, she has gone back to her studies, beginning a master's degree at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.

Noura's first awareness of human rights - and of their absence - came early:"I remember when I was just a kid, I was angry because we couldn't choose our notebooks.

"We could have only one type of notebook - one with a photo of Assad's father on it."

Missing persons

She soon learned that other, much worse things were wrong with her country.

Image copyright Reuters Image caption Homs this summer showing the damage of war

"Many of the students, a couple of years older than me, were mentioning their missing fathers.I became aware we had missing persons in Syria.

"While I was growing up, I remember hearing mothers supporting each other...they were the mothers of missing persons.

"Those guys were the detainees arrested by Assad's father in the 1980s.Some of them are still until this moment missing … there were no bodies, there was nothing, just silence."

Activism and arrests

Noura came up against the regime as an undergraduate at the University of Homs - and reading books such as George Orwell's Animal Farm chimed deeply with her own experience.


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Noura's increasing activism, her work as a blogger, publishing imaginative allegorical fiction, and her readiness to speak out, led to two early arrests.

Nevertheless she continued this dangerous work, accessing forbidden websites to distribute anti-regime articles, disseminating ideas of democracy and non-violent protest.

"We never believed there would be a real revolution in our lifetimes," she said.

And then, in December 2010, the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, and spread rapidly, arriving in Syria with a demonstration in Damascus in March 2011.

Image copyright Reuters Image caption A mother in Homs with a locket of her lost son

"For me it was like a dream.We have a revolution." Noura was still in Homs, but was in touch with activists around the country, and abroad.

She became an organiser of demonstrations and an advocate for the rapidly rising numbers of detainees.

Social media

In the response that followed, many of her friends were killed, many others imprisoned and tortured.

"To be honest we were not shocked, we knew too well that this regime would not allow people to demand their rights."

They were more shocked, she said, by the lack of any effective response from the international community.

"We were saying, back in the 70s and 80s, when there were great massacres in Syria, there was no internet, there no media channels.

"But we thought, now we have the social media channels, hopefully this would protect us.But it did not protect us."

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Noura's young life has been against a background of war:A fighter in Homs

Noura moved from city to city, organising, motivating, dodging the authorities - until in May 2012, she was ordered off a bus in Damascus by armed men and bundled into a car.

"It was not an arrest, it was abduction, a kidnapping," she said.

Tortured in prison

Noura emerged seven months later.During that time she was detained in some of Syria's most notorious prisons, and said she had been tortured with electric shocks and beatings.

She plays this down, saying that so many have endured - and are still enduring - far worse.

For her the hardest experience to bear was hearing the sounds of her fellow-prisoners being tortured.Her captors realised this psychological torture would be more effective in her case - but still she remained silent.

Noura explained how she survived:"I was not afraid for myself, I didn't care about myself...I cared only about the revolution… I cared about the people who were still continuing this revolution outside."

Image copyright Reuters Image caption Homs this summer showing the damage of war

"We were still a non-violent movement on the ground...and I kept thinking about them...I wanted to make sure that in the questioning I would not speak about any one of those activists.I would pray to my body not to break down."

Noura was released late in 2012, and believes that an international campaign played a part in this:"For sure, all of those activities protected me.That is why we need this advocacy, all the time, for all detainees and for missing persons."

For Noura, the torment continued, as her younger sister, Alaa, had also been imprisoned and was suffering even worse:"They tortured her harder than me, many times, because of me."

Alaa was released in a terrible physical state;the family decided they had to leave Syria, and fled to Turkey to get urgent medical treatment.

"She was my only reason to leave Syria," said Noura."Otherwise I would still be there."

Image caption Noura became a representative in peace talks in Geneva

In four years of exile in Turkey, she joined the coalition of Syrian opposition forces, (SNC) and became its vice-president in 2014, as well as being elected to sit on its negotiation panel in Geneva.

She joined because she realised this much-criticised group of mainly male, middle-aged "hotel revolutionaries" needed "the blood of youth" and also a strong female voice.

Geneva was a real challenge for Noura:"I felt I had to be calm and clever, I had do everything I could do, to interact."

She worked hard to get an agreement to break the two-year siege of Homs.Many of its surviving citizens were dying of starvation.

'Scholars at risk'

Noura resigned from the coalition in 2016, but continued working for an NGO she had created, Start Point, which provides advocacy and psychological support to Syrian women who have suffered torture and sexual violence in detention.

She had also met her husband in Turkey, another Syrian activist in exile, who was one of a network of cyber-security experts working for the Munk School's Citizen Lab;hence the Toronto connection.

Noura came to Canada as one of 24 international students with scholarships in the university's "scholars at risk" programme.

With her daughter due to be born next month, Noura is aware of how this might change her activism.But she's determined not to give up the fight.

She sees the master's degree as another step to help her continue her work to bring democracy to Syria.

"I feel also that being a mother makes me closer to the future...this baby is the future, and maybe will not have to live as our generation live."...

References

  1. ^ Global education (www.bbc.co.uk)
  2. ^ Global education series (www.bbc.co.uk)

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Amazon and eBay warned by MPs about VAT fraudsters

Amazon packages at a fulfilment centreImage copyright Getty Images Image caption The problem of online VAT fraud is growing fast, MPs said

Amazon and eBay are profiting from sellers who defraud UK taxpayers by failing to charge VAT, according to a report by MPs.

The report estimates up to £1.5bn has been lost from third-party sellers on online marketplaces not charging the tax on sales they make in the UK.

MPs in the Public Accounts Committee criticised HMRC for being "too cautious" in pursuing the "fraudsters".

Amazon and eBay said they were working with HMRC on the issue.

Labour MP Meg Hillier, who chairs the committee, called online VAT fraud "hugely damaging" for British businesses and taxpayers.

She added that "the response of HMRC and the marketplaces where fraudsters operate has been dismal".

'Bewildering'

The fraud has increased because foreign firms selling goods to UK shoppers - usually via online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay - are keeping some of their stock in UK warehouses to provide next day delivery.

If items are dispatched from UK soil, the sellers have to charge VAT at 20%.

But many have not been, so undercutting genuine UK suppliers and reducing tax revenue, the committee's report found.

Brexit will make the issue more complicated because of uncertainty over trading and customs, it added.

Image copyright Reuters Image caption EBay and Amazon say they kick VAT fraudsters off their sites

Both Amazon and eBay told the committee they took action to remove "bad actors" from their sites.

But the report said it was "bewildering that these big companies have taken such little action to date".

It added that Amazon and eBay, amongst other online marketplaces, "continue to profit from fraudulent activities taking place on their sites" by charging the sellers a commission.

In the hearings a pack of lightbulb socket converters and a hose for a Dyson vacuum cleaner were held up as examples of products sold without VAT.

'Above and beyond'

The report's conclusions include:

  • The UK's tax agency, HMRC, should set up an agreement with online marketplaces by March next year to tackle the issue
  • The websites should require non-EU sellers - which dispatch goods already in the UK - to provide a valid VAT number
  • HMRC should "inject more urgency" by making more extensive use of its existing powers

HMRC said it had introduced new rules last year to hold online marketplaces liable for unpaid VAT by overseas sellers, leading to a ten-fold rise in the number of sellers registering for VAT.

"The new reforms will secure an extra £875m in tax to help pay for vital public services," an HMRC spokesman said.

In a statement Amazon said it was reviewing the report and supported efforts to ensure sellers across all marketplaces were VAT compliant.

An eBay spokesperson said it was going "above and beyond" HMRC's requirements to provide a "fair marketplace for all our buyers and sellers"....

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The human cost of China's economic reforms

Workers sew in a clothing factory in Bozhou in east China's Anhui provinceImage copyright AFP

Luo Yanli is worried about the bad smell from the electric car factory over the road and what the fumes might be doing to her baby and toddler.

Mr Yu is worried that millions of workers the Chinese government plans to lay off from failing state owned companies will be "abandoned" like he says he was 15 years ago.

Mark Weinberger is worried about China's mountain of national debt, the possibility of bankruptcies and - ultimately - what it might mean for the thousands his multinational firm employs in China.

All three tell me they support reforms to overhaul China's mammoth economy;but their stories, from three very different parts of China, reveal the consequences and anxieties associated with the changes.

Health fears

image

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Media captionWhat has China's president achieved so far?

The early autumn nights are still warm and humid in Shenzhen where Yanli lives in the south of China.But she doesn't open the windows in her apartment because of the strong smell from the sprawling BYD electric car factory.

"Before we bought the apartment the developer told us the plant would move elsewhere" she says."After we moved here little seems to have changed."

The factory was inspected last year after protests.Airtight seals were installed to contain the fumes.When we visited locals told us some production had been moved to another site.

With her baby boy on her lap and her daughter playing with a plastic fork beside her, Yanli says:"The smell is very strong and it has severely affected out lives".

They don't know if it's dangerous but, like most of their neighbours, they have plants in their apartment in the hope they'll absorb the smell seeping in.

Image caption Luo Yanli has concerns about fumes from a local factory

The complex is home to the world's biggest manufacturer of electric cars.BYD is a global leader in a technology that China hopes it can dominate;electric vehicles, and specifically the batteries that power them.

The big push towards electric isn't just about industrial strategy, it's about trying to tackle China's immense pollution problems - the most obvious of which is dirty air.

With incentives for infrastructure and aggressive quota demands for, mostly foreign, manufacturers, this is part and parcel of Beijing's effort to make China's economy less focused on government investment and cheap exports - and instead to one that is technologically advanced, with a sustainable base and driven by consumer spending.

So is a bad smell and worries about fumes a price worth paying for this progress, I ask Yanli?Yes it is, she intimates.The windows are firmly shut, though.

Survival of the fittest

Almost 3,000km (1,800 miles) away in Shenyang, taxi driver Mr Yu points to where the steel smelting plant used to stand, where he worked.It's long gone, replaced by car dealerships and apartment blocks.You can buy a Cadillac where he used to walk through the now demolished main gate.

It's 15 years since he was laid off in the wave of liberalising economic reforms with compensation of just over a year's salary - about $5,000 (£3,700).

Despite the years he gets visibly emotional when I ask if there's any part of the city that's still recognisable from his time as a steel worker.

He says he was "abandoned" by the government.There was no training for a new job, no support aside from the pay-off.But two children and a taxi licence later he's a believer in reforms that bring competition to the market place.

Image caption Mr Yu was laid off from his job as a steel worker and now drives a taxi

"I think the rule 'survival of the fittest' should apply", he says as we drive around, "baggage should be cast aside" he adds.But there is also this, "isn't it true that the people should be properly settled?"

They know a lot about "settling" workers in Shenyang.It's the capital city in China's weakest performing province.

Liaoning was once the manufacturing heartland.Now it's trying to rescue the towns and cities around the coal mines and steel plants that help make up this country's "rust belt" and is about to get its first privately owned bank, called the "revitalisation" bank.

Away from car dealerships and the mega malls we go to Lisheng on Shenyang's outskirts.Food and rubbish is dumped in piles on its main street.One ground floor apartment in a housing estate has a home-made pigeon coop in a bay window.Parts of the building are decaying.It's home for the workers at the nearby coal mine.

As China tries to tackle chronic over-capacity in its traditional industries it's also moving away from dirty coal to heat homes and power its economy.Many mines are being mothballed.

A bus driver outside Lisheng's pink-painted community hospital tells me he used to do 17 trips to the mine every day, now it's just seven."A lot of people have retired but the company is not able to hire new employees - nobody wants to come because the salary is low."

Image copyright AFP Image caption A construction site in Shenyang, the capital of China's weakest performing economic province

As the sun goes down a woman who runs a fruit stall says her business had taken a 30% hit in the last two years, which she puts down to workers' salaries falling.

The market boss claims people are buying pork and making it last for two or three days instead of buying daily.A retired miner, who like most of the people we talk to in Lisheng doesn't want to go in front of a microphone, says income for some is down 50%.

Still growing

So what of taxi driver Mr Yu's call for "survival of the fittest"?President Xi Jinping shows little sign of going that far.It looks like his government's early pledge to enhance market forces - giving them a "decisive role" has remained just that, a pledge.

Thousands of factories have been closed but that's as much about their polluting effect than their productive inefficiency.

There have been consolidations in various sectors of the myriad state-owned enterprises.The (almost all state-owned) banks have come in with debt for equity deals - something close to a bail out - for the most troubled companies.

But there hasn't been a wave of bankruptcies.Preserving social stability is likely to be the main reason for this.A wave of concentrated unemployment could see protests that could threaten order.

Indeed 2016 actually saw increased cheap credit and a boost in government spending.Rather than an assault on inefficient state-owned entities, many going, only with increased - and cheaper - debt.

Still, the world's second largest economy continues to grow, at rates many in the developed world would envy;6.7% last year, but the rate of growth is slowing, a plateau is approaching.

Debt bubble?

Debt and risk are the two things that some think will combine to produce an economic catastrophe in China - but not Mark Weinberger, the CEO of EY, one of the big four accountancy firms.

"I don't see an impending catastrophe," he says, when we met in Shanghai:"The growth is still there to be able to pay off debt".

Such optimism is perhaps not surprising from a man who advises the mayor of China's second city.But Mr Weinberger warns nobody should be complacent:"When the debt gets so large it crowds out growth because of the cost of that debt - that becomes a problem".

And China's debt is huge;it is currently about 260% of annual economic output and is predicted to rise.What makes it particularly worrisome is that the bulk of this is held by state-owned corporate entities.

Risky practice has been growing too, particularly around the so called "shadow banking" sector.So much so that Beijing cracked down on the insurance market in particular, and went after some of China's best known private firms who were deemed too risky in the way they raised money.

Image caption EY chief executive Mark Weinberger says he doesn't see "an impending catastrophe"

Firms who owned or had stakes in New York's Waldorf Astoria, Deutsche Bank, Club Med and Wolves FC were all targeted.It's steadied the boat, but that appears all.

Other far more significant reforms have not yet happened;financial market reforms, substantial rural land reform, changes to the internal passport-like hukou welfare system.

One thing that is happening though is a deepening of the role of "the party" at the top of China's state firms.There were reports this summer that foreign owned firms or joint ventures have been asked to give the Communist Party equal say over their major corporate decisions.

Xi Jinping faces a multitude of challenges in his country's economy as he embarks on his second term at the top.Strengthening the party's hold on the means of production is one of Beijing's responses....

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