Obama to visit CIA amid torture claims

US President Barack Obama will visit CIA headquarters amid charges he undermined the US intelligence community by unveiling details of its controversial interrogation methods.

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The US leader, who last week released “Top Secret” memos on interrogation techniques widely condemned as torture, will go to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, for private meetings with personnel and to deliver a public message “about the importance of the CIA\’s mission” to US national security.

Obama is set to reassure CIA officers of his promise not to seek prosecution of CIA agents or former officials under his predecessor George W. Bush who authorized or carried out the harsh techniques the government now condemns.

“This is a time for reflection, not retribution,” Obama said Thursday after releasing the documents.

Former head of the US Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Hayden, however, warned Sunday that the release could still leave agents vulnerable to civil lawsuits or congressional probes targetting CIA agents who relied on the Bush-era memos to carry out harsh interrogations.

“There will be more revelations. There will be more commissions. There will be more investigations,” he told the TV program “Fox News Sunday.”

This is an agency, he added, “that is at war and is on the frontlines of defending America.”

The harsh interrogation techniques, Hayden insisted, had succeeded in battling Al-Qaeda and saving American lives, something he characterized as “an inconvenient truth.”

Hayden, who was replaced as CIA chief earlier this year by Obama, assailed the decision to release the memos as “really dangerous” for US intelligence efforts.

The documents showed how the Bush-era legal officials argued that tactics such as simulated drowning, face slapping, the use of insects to scare prisoners and sleep deprivation did not amount to torture.

“Most of the people who oppose these techniques want to be able to say: \’I don\’t want my nation doing this\’ – which is a pure honorable position – and \’they didn\’t work anyway\’,” Hayden said.

“The facts of the case are that the use of these techniques against these terrorists made us safer, it really did,” he said.

“It\’s what I\’d call, without meaning any irreverence to anybody, \’a really inconvenient truth\’.”

Hayden specifically rejected a weekend report in The New York Times citing CIA officials saying that waterboarding and beating of a top Al-Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaydah, yielded no more information than softer interrogation techniques.

“We stand by our story. The critical information we got from Abu Zubaydah came after we began the EIT\’s, enhanced interrogation techniques,” he said.

Hayden said Abu Zubaydah had “clammed up” after providing some “nominal information” under initial questioning.

But under harsher interrogation he “gave up more valuable information,” including tips that led to the capture of another senior Al-Qaeda agent, Ramzi Binalshibh, he said.

Hayden also said Obama\’s own CIA director, Leon Panetta, as well as three other former CIA chiefs had warned the White House against releasing the memos outlining US interrogation techniques.

“The definition of top secret is information which, if revealed, would cause grave harm to US security,” he said, adding that the release of the documents, by definition of their classification, was “a grave threat to national security.”

The gravest effect, Hayden said, was that agency officers may be held back in the future from acting in the best interests of the country.

Because of the furor over the memo\’s release, an officer may not be satisfied if the Justice Department, White House and Congress sign off on specific actions, said Hayden.

However, Janet Napolitano, Obama\’s homeland security secretary, defended the decision.

“When you look at the great public need for accountability and responsibility and transparency here, and when you look at our desire to close the book on this regrettable chapter and move the country forward, it was imperative, really, that the reports be released,” she said on CNN.

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Hopes dim of US-Cuba thaw as Americas summit ends

President Barack Obama dampened hopes of a quick end to a long-standing US trade embargo on Cuba as Havana\’s exclusion from a regional summit scuppered agreement on a joint declaration.

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Although Obama made the historic acknowledgement that Washington\’s half-century policy towards Cuba “hasn\’t worked,” he told the Americas summit in Trinidad and Tobago that it would not be modified any time soon and urged Cuba to give its people more freedoms.

“We\’re not going to change that policy overnight,” Obama told a news conference at the end of the gathering, which brought together 34 heads of state.

“Issues of political prisoners, freedom of speech and democracy are important, and can\’t simply be brushed aside,” Obama said.

Those remarks doused hopes built up last week that led many to believe Washington and Havana might be on course to negotiate an end to the 47-year-old US embargo on Cuba.

Optimism was stoked when Obama lifted curbs on Cuban-Americans visiting and sending money to Cuba.

It took on momentum when Cuban President Raul Castro said he was willing to talk to the US about “everything” — including the previously off-limits topics of political prisoners, freedom of the press and human rights.

But by the end of the summit, Obama and his administration were cautioning that any further US compromises would only follow concrete signs from Cuba that it was serious in engaging them.

“The test for all of us is not simply words, but also deeds,” Obama said. The summit itself became a showcase for Obama\’s popularity with leaders who have previously been cool towards the US, including Venezuela\’s President Hugo Chavez, jockeying to be captured in photos with the US president.

But Obama\’s charm offensive was not enough to persuade all the leaders to put their names to a final joint declaration, with several sticking to an earlier vow that they would not endorse the document in solidarity with Cuba, which was excluded from the meeting.

Several nations, including Bolivia, Venezuela, Honduras and Nicaragua, agreed ahead of time not to sign the final declaration to show displeasure that Cuba was not invited to the summit.

The gesture also was taken to protest Havana\’s continued exclusion from hemispheric groups like the Organization of American States, from which Cuba was barred in 1962 at Washington\’s insistence.

While Obama did attract some criticism back home for shaking hands with Chavez and accepting a book from him as a gift, he made clear that — as with Cuba — major obstacles remained towards better ties despite “positive signs”.

“I have great differences with Hugo Chavez on matters of economic policy and matters of foreign policy,” Obama said.

“There have been instances in which we\’ve seen Venezuela interfere with some of the countries that surround Venezuela in ways that I think are a source of concern,” he added. Almost all the leaders said Obama was a genial, open counterpart who seemed genuine in wanting to open a “new era” with them based on standing toe-to-toe.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Obama was helping build “a new dynamic” in the region. But a few others were more skeptical.

“He is the chief of an empire hemmed in by its own rules who will never change,” Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said.

The United States and other countries in the Americas are to consider the Cuba issue again June 2-3 in Honduras, when the Organization of American States will mull dropping a 1962 resolution barring the island from the group.

Although the final declaration document lacked the signatures of several leaders, those who did sign agreed to combat “all forms of organized crime”.

The language was pushed by Mexico where more than 7,000 people have been killed since the beginning of last year in clashes between Mexican drug cartels and security forces.

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Recession inevitable: Rudd

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has finally conceded the economy will be dragged into a recession for the first time since the early 1990s.

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Previously, he and Treasurer Wayne Swan had avoided using the “R” word, although most economists have expressed the view the economy was either already in recession or would be unable to dodge the dramatic downturn suffered by Australia\’s trading partners.

“The worst global economic recession in 75 years means it\’s inevitable that Australia will be dragged into recession,” Mr Rudd told an economic forum in Adelaide on Monday.

“The severity of the global recession has made it impossible for Australia to avoid a further period of negative economic growth.”

The economy recorded its first quarter of negative growth in eight years during the final three months of 2008. A recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth.

The March quarter economic growth reading will be released on June 3.

Inflation pressures in decline

The government\’s admission came as new data showed inflation pressures were clearly in decline and won\’t stand in the way of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) trimming the official cash rate again if it needs to stimulate the economy further.

Wholesale prices – or the costs to business – unexpectedly fell in the first three months of this year, the first drop since mid-2003.

Economists said the result presents some downside risk to their forecasts for Wednesday\’s consumer price index (CPI), keeping inflation concerns very much on the back burner.

“RBA officials won\’t be sitting on the edge of their seats in anticipation of this week\’s inflation data,” JP Morgan economist Helen Kevans said.

Minutes from the April RBA board meeting, when it cut the cash rate by a further 25 basis points, will be released on Tuesday, providing an insight for the decision, and perhaps hinting to the likelihood of further rate cuts down the track.

Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens will give a lunchtime address to the Australian Institute of Company Directors not long after the minutes are released.

Financial markets are pricing in a greater than even chance of a further 25 basis points cut in May and a low for the cash rate of around 2.5 per cent later in the year.

“We expect further modest rate cuts from the RBA, particularly given that it will be difficult for RBA officials to sit on their hands as the unemployment rate rises sharply in the months ahead,” Ms Kevans said.

The producer price index (PPI) at the final stage of production fell 0.4 per cent in the March quarter, after rising 1.3 per cent in the previous three months, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said.

The decline was led by a 25 per cent drop in oil prices and a 1.5 per cent fall in building costs.

The annual PPI rate subsided to its slowest pace in more than a year at 4.0 per cent, compared with 6.4 per cent growth in the December quarter, and almost a full percentage point lower than economists had predicted. Price pressures in the earlier stages of the production chain were also much weaker, which should put more downward pressure on consumer prices later in the year.

However, ANZ economist Riki Polygenis does not believe the economy is about to face a period of deflation. “While Australia is expected to experience recession, there will not be the same collapse in demand – particularly from consumers … being experienced elsewhere,” she said.

Deflation would be disastrous for the government when it is trying to get people spending through its stimulus packages, as there would be little incentive to purchase major goods knowing they would be cheaper in the future.

Forecasts for Wednesday\’s March quarter CPI made prior to the PPI release centred on a 0.5 per cent quarterly rise, which would cut the annual inflation rate to 2.9 per cent and take it back within the RBA\’s two to three per cent target band.

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Iran orders \’quick and fair\’ appeal for US reporter

Iran\’s judiciary says it has ordered a “quick and fair” appeal for US-Iranian reporter Roxana Saberi, who was sentenced last week to eight years in jail as a US spy.

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“The different aspects of this case… should be fairly, accurately and quickly considered in appeal proceedings,” judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahrudi was quoted as saying in a statement obtained by AFP.

Saberi, 31, was convicted by an Iranian revolutionary court during a closed-door trial last week of spying for the United States, which along with Israel is Tehran\’s main foe.

But in an unprecedented move on Sunday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for “justice” for Saberi and said she should be given the right to defend herself. The eight-year jail term for Saberi is the harshest sentence yet for a dual national on security charges in Iran. The charge of spying can carry the death penalty.

Foreign ministry spokemsan Hassan Ghashghavi also denied on Monday that Saberi was being used as a bargaining chip in any talks with Washington or to try to secure the release of Iranian diplomats held by US forces in Iraq.

“The issue of our diplomats is a whole different matter from the trial of an Iranian national such as Ms Saberi,” Ghashghavi told reporters.

He also said that Saberi, a former US beauty queen with both Iranian and US citizenship, would have no consular access to the Swiss embassy, which represents American interests in Tehran.

“We act according to our laws concerning Iranian citizens.

She is an Iranian national and she has had full access to a lawyer,” he said.

Iran does not recognise dual nationality.

His comments came after Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz raised Saberi\’s case during a meeting Ahmadinejad on Sunday in Geneva, where the Iranian president is due to speak at a controversial racism conference.

The United States severed ties with Iran in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution but new US President Barack Obama has been calling for dialogue with Tehran.

The United States has led international concern about the conviction of Saberi, who was initially detained in January accused of buying alcohol, an illegal act in the Islamic republic.

Obama, who has voiced “deep disappointment” over the verdict against Saberi, denied on Sunday denied that she was a spy and demanded her release.

Saberi, who is also of Japanese descent, has reported for US National Public Radio, the BBC and Fox News, and has been living in Iran for the past six years.

In March, the foreign ministry said Saberi\’s press card was revoked in 2006 and that she had since been working in Iran “illegally.”

Ahmadinejad on Sunday told the Tehran prosecutor to examine the cases against both Saberi and Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan, who has been behind bars since November on charges of insulting Shiite imams.

“You must do what is needed to secure justice… in examining these people\’s charges,” his chief of staff said in a letter to prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi.

“Take care that the defendants have all the legal freedoms and rights to defend themselves against the charges.”

The US military in Iraq raided the Iranian liaison office in the Kurdish northern city of Arbil in January 2007, seizing five men. Iran insists they were diplomats and has repeatedly called for their release.

Two were freed in November 2007 but US forces are still holding three men.

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Gold Coast United: Draw \"slap in the face\"

Outspoken A-League newcomers Gold Coast United have described Football Federation Australia\’s decision to deny them an opening round home game as a “slap in the face”.

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The Queensland Roar will host the much-hyped season opener against United at Suncorp Stadium on August 8, ensuring a financial windfall for the cash-strapped Brisbane-based club.

An initial 2009-10 season draft had reportedly pencilled in United\’s 27,000-seat Skilled Park as the round one host venue.

But there was recent speculation that the FFA had switched it to the 52,000-capacity Suncorp Stadium to help the Roar.

Football Federation Australia chief Ben Buckley denied it, adding the game deserved to be played in the biggest and best venue available and that is Suncorp Stadium.

Apart from hosting fellow newcomers North Queensland Fury in the second round and Sydney FC in round five, United face a baptism of fire with a busy travel schedule in their first two months.

Fowler to face Sydney FC in A-League debut

Former Liverpool and England striker Robbie Fowler will make his A-League debut for newcomers North Queensland Fury against Sydney FC in Townsville on Saturday, August 8.

In other round one fixtures, reigning champions Melbourne Victory will play Central Coast Mariners at Etihad Stadium on the season opener on August 6 and second new team Gold Coast United will play Queensland Roar at Suncorp Stadium on August 8.

The draw for 2009-10 season was launched, with the league expanded by two teams, taking it to 10.

The season will now comprise 27 rounds, six more than previous seasons.

The format for the finals series has also expanded and will now involve the top six teams instead of the previous top four.

They will involve seven matches and offer more chances for the top two teams in the regular season.

There will also be a number of games to be played at new venues during the season.

These include Sydney Cricket Ground, Parramatta Stadium, and Perth\’s Subiaco Oval.

The Melbourne Victory kicks off the 2009-10 season against the Central Coast Mariners on Thursday 6th August.

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Duo develop breathable cocktail

A walk-in cloud of breathable cocktail in a bar was attracting a new kind of customer to London\’s Soho.

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For five pounds, visitors receive special protective suits and can enter the cocktail mist made of Hendrick\’s Scottish gin and tonic water.

“Basically what we do is we take the G & T, vaporize it using industrial technology, and it creates a vast cloud,” said Sam Bompas, a designer of the Bompas & Parr bar.

“It\’s like going into a cocktail on an architectural scale and hence alcoholic architecture,” he said.

Visitors are allowed to stay in the bar for a maximum of one hour.

“You had different experiences. If you breathed in through your nose it was very chemically, but if you breathed in through your mouth you had a very different experience as well. So it was like being in a steam room but sort of a dry ice room,” said twins Nicola and Pippa MacKenzie-Dodds.

“A city like London is often described as having the culture of Paris, but also the vibrance of New York City. There is another side of London and that is the alternative lifestyle. The alternative things that happen in the city. And I think this exhibition in many ways typifies exactly that,” added visitor Christopher Pang.

The artists were inspired by the Anthony Gormley\’s Blind Light construction which was shown at the Hayward Gallery in 2007. Sound artist Douglas Murphy created a soundscape of eighties disco music in the bar.

Bompas said he worked with three doctors to calculate how much alcohol people would breathe in at a certain room volume and amount of time in order to minimize the health risks.

“It varies whether you are a massive rugby player or someone who is very petite with small lungs. But it is probably the equivalence of a 35 millimetre. It depends on how deeply you breathe as well. We also advice people to breathe responsibly,” said Bompas.

Other Bompas & Parr projects include a liquid banqueting table, design jelly moulds, and create a glow-in-the-dark dessert chamber.

The breathable bar lasts until April 25.

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Zuma urges big turnout in polls

South Africa\’s ruling party leader Jacob Zuma called for a big turnout for this week\’s general elections, which are expected to launch him to the presidency.

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“Vote in numbers to give the party the authority and power to change things,” Zuma told a meeting with the transport industry.

“If people don\’t vote for ANC, they will deny the party a majority, which will mean it can\’t take correct decisions,” he said.

With elections just two days away, the leader of the African National Congress (ANC) was enjoying a wave of publicity and public enthusiasm following the surprise appearance of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela at a rally Sunday.

Even though the ANC is expected to easily win the general elections, 90-year-old Mandela gave a moral boost to the party which has been ripped apart by in-fighting and clouded by allegations of corruption against Zuma.

“My prediction is that the ANC going to get over 60 percent of the votes,” said political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi.

However, Matshiqi cautioned that the results might be full of surprises, as an ANC breakaway called the Congress of the People (COPE) is for the first time challenging for power along with the current opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).

“Firstly, the ANC might just get the two thirds majority and surprise everyone, and COPE might do better than the DA. On the other hand, the DA might improve on its 2004 results,” said Matshiqi.

The ANC has held a two-thirds majority since the 2004 polls, allowing the party to bring in constitutional changes at will.

Sunday\’s rally, dubbed Siyanqoba, or “victory” in Zulu, drew over 120,000 supporters and was beamed to eight venues around the country.

Zuma’s Troubles

Until just two weeks ago, Zuma had been the subject of a corruption investigation stemming from a 1999 arms deal.

Prosecutors dropped the charges saying that political meddling had compromised the legal process, but insisting they remained confident of the case against him.

The opposition condemned the decision, but the move reinvigorated his followers who have long believed that his prosecution was plotted by political enemies to prevent him from becoming president.

The ANC has promised to rid South Africa of corruption and improve on poor delivery of government services, a point of great public frustration that has been seized upon by the new opposition.

But analysts say the only question in the elections is whether the ANC will hold on to its two-thirds majority.

“The key question is whether the ANC will hold on to its existing two-thirds majority in the upcoming election,” said Razia Khan, head of Africa research at Standard Chartered Bank in London.

Although COPE is seen as the first significant opposition to take on the ANC, experts and polls suggest the party is likely to win no more than 10 percent of the vote.

After 15 years of democracy, the ANC is still the party of choice for the country\’s mainly black and poor majority, who feel populist presidential candidate Zuma will tackle the still crushing rates of poverty and unemployment.

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Recession admission not a distraction: Swan

Treasurer Wayne Swan denies that the government\’s admission that Australia will be dragged into recession is an attempt to deflect attention away from Labor\’s border protection policy.

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Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told an economic forum in Adelaide on Monday that it was “inevitable” Australia would be dragged into recession.

The economy recorded its first quarter of negative growth in eight years during the final three months of 2008 and the March quarter economic growth reading will be released on June 3.

But Mr Swan dismissed opposition claims the government was acknowledging a recession after months of avoiding the term to deflect attention away from the issue of boat people.

“That is completely ridiculous and demonstrates just how desperate the opposition has become,” Mr Swan told ABC Radio on Tuesday.

He said Labor had been warning the Australian public of an impending recession for some time. Economic growth forecasts from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), due out on Wednesday, as well as next month\’s budget growth predictions and national accounts figures were likely to further downgrade growth in the domestic economy, Mr Swan said.

“What I can be is frank with the Australian people about the magnitude of the global recession,” he said. “The fact that seven of our 10 largest trading partners are already in recession, about the fact that the IMF is about to further downgrade its growth forecasts.”

But Mr Swan said the Australian economy was still the best positioned of those in the developed world to weather the global financial crisis.

“It\’s also important … we underline the strengths in the Australian economy because out of all of the developed economies in the world there is one that most people would want to be in and it still remains the Australian economy.”

Political debate on boat people was sparked by last week\’s boat explosion near Ashmore Island off the northwest coast of Australia, in which five asylum seekers were killed and dozens more injured.

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Liberals \’in disarray\’ over protection visas

Federal Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull\’s push to revisit the issue of temporary protection visas (TPVs) appears likely to create unrest in parts of the Liberal Party.

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Mr Turnbull on Monday said he wanted to reinstate TPVs designed to make permanent residency status harder to get for people who arrive by boat.

Debate on the issue was sparked by last week\’s boat explosion near Ashmore Island off the northwest coast of Australia, in which five asylum seekers were killed and dozens more injured. Liberal Party member and former MP Bruce Baird said “it\’s not on” to bring back TPVs.

“We have moved on as a country. We have recognised the injustice of the previous system, and that\’s the way it should be,” he told ABC Radio on Tuesday morning.

Mr Baird, still actively involved in the party, said there had been no polling, head count or vote on the issue but there would certainly be a lot of people, particularly moderates in the party, who would find it totally unacceptable.

However, Mr Turnbull indicated the party should examine the issue “with an open mind”. “So yes, TPVs, or perhaps I should put it another way, a different visa category, reinstating a different visa category for unauthorised boat arrivals should certainly be high on the agenda,” he said.

But going back to the exact same system before August needed to be considered based on advice and intelligence assessments, Mr Turnbull said.

There was always a range of views on the issue in the Liberal Party, he said.

“We don\’t all have the same opinion on every issue but we debate it, people have different views and then we come to a common view.”

The government seems unlikely to revert back to TPVs with Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus saying TPVs actually encouraged people smugglers and asylum seekers to come to Australia.

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Aussie bans NZ town

A Sydney man has triggered a rash of anti-Aussie sentiment across the Tasman after banning an entire New Zealand town from staying at his motel.

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Steve Donnelly, the Australian owner of Supreme Motor Lodge in the central North Island town of Palmerston North, has put a block on bookings from any of the 16,000 residents of Wainuiomata, close to the capital, Wellington.

Donnelly, who has lived in New Zealand for two years, claimed the town was full of young “troublemakers” who consistently trashed his motel during visits for sporting events, and says all residents are now banished.

But his ban has some New Zealanders spitting tacks.

They say it\’s stupid, unfair and outrageous, and have labelled Donnelly the country\’s Basil Fawlty, the bumbling John Cleese character in the Fawlty Towers series.

Newspapers have run headlines like “Australian bans town” and a senior Labour politician, Trevor Mallard, born and bred in Wainuiomata, said: I\’m not surprised he\’s Australian”.

“His actions show the sort of blind prejudice I thought we didn\’t have in New Zealand anymore”.

Another group of prominent residents said they planned to book in just to spite the Australian.

“Give me the number and I\’ll go and book myself in for the week,” one man told the Dominion Post newspaper.

Donnelly, for his part, says he\’s furious that New Zealanders are making a point about his home country.

“Whenever something goes on that the Kiwis don\’t like they seem to take great pleasure in pointing out the Australian connection,” he told AAP.

“But I don\’t get it. Is it that I\’m nasty? Is it that I\’m short sighted or arrogant or intolerant, or what?

“Me being an Aussie has got absolutely nothing to do with the awful behaviour of these people, that\’s for certain.”

Donnelly said visiting sports teams from the town had consistently behaved badly, spitting, swearing and playing loud music at night.

“I\’m not saying there aren\’t any nice people in Wainuiomata, but plenty of them are bad and we don\’t want them here,” he said.

The Motel Association of New Zealand said Supreme was well within its rights to ban a town.

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