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MFAT silent on Saudi legal threat

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 21/10/2016

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade is refusing to disclose to the Ombudsman whether a legal threat existed over the Saudi sheep farm deal, Labour's David Parker says.

Mr Parker has been trying to find out whether wealthy Saudi businessman Hmood Al Ali Al Khalaf ever threatened to sue the government over the millions of dollars he lost when the export of live sheep for slaughter was banned in 2007.

The government made a deal with Khalaf, putting $11 million into an agri-hub on his desert farm.

That included a $1m payment to Mr Khalaf, which ministers said was made partly to avoid the threat of legal action.

At the time, the issue was standing in the way of a free trade agreement with Saudi Arabia, which still hasn't been signed.

Mr Parker doesn't believe there was any threat of legal action, and the government hasn't proved there was.

He asked the Ombudsman to investigate, and said on Friday he had received an interim decision.

"The Ombudsman has said MFAT are refusing to disclose whether a legitimate legal risk ever existed, claiming this would prejudice New Zealand's international relations," Mr Parker said.

"It's an absurd position but a very revealing one - if the advice did exist, the ministry officials would have confirmed ministers' assertions, but instead they've chosen to hide behind `international relations' to avoid embarrassment."

Mr Parker says there's only one credible explanation - no advice existed.

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