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A case against Western Australian live export company Emanuel Exports over the deaths of 2400 sheep from heat stress on a voyage to the Middle East five years ago is to be dropped just days before it was due to go to trial.
Animal welfare representatives condemned the move and called for an anti-corruption inquiry, but supporters of the Perth-based exporter – which lost its licence to export for three years over the 2017 Awassi Express disaster – applauded the backdown.
Livestock ship the Awassi Express.
In 2019, Emanuel Exports was charged with 16 animal cruelty offences, with a trial set for November 20 this year.
But sources on both sides of the case, with knowledge of the proceedings and who asked to remain anonymous to discuss the matter publicly, told this masthead that it would be pulled.
A short time later it was confirmed that a hearing had been abruptly set for Tuesday, when the matter is expected to be formally discontinued.
Asked if the prosecution was being aborted, WA Agriculture Minister Jackie Jarvis said she expected the state’s Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) would put taxpayers’ interests first.
“DPIRD brought the charges based on legal advice at the time,” Jarvis said. “And I expect they will be following legal advice on the path forward, putting the public interest and the interest of taxpayers first.”
Footage from 2017 showing sheep dying in horrific conditions on a ship to the Middle East helped turn public opinion against live sheep trade.Credit: Animals Australia
A DPIRD spokeswoman said Tuesday’s hearing was “to deal with matters related to the trial”.
“DPIRD is unable to provide any further comment on matters that are before the courts,” the spokeswoman said.
Liberal MP Rick Wilson, the federal member for the WA seat of O’Connor and is one of Emanuel’s staunchest public advocates, recently wrote to Jarvis demanding she use her “ministerial authority” to intervene and have the charges dropped.
“The West Australian government should withdraw this case and our expectation is that the minister will act responsibly and in the best interests of Western Australian producers,” he said in an interview this week.
Two directors of the company, Graham Daws – who has since stepped down – and Michael Stanton, have insisted they are innocent.
Emanuel Exports was recently granted permission to export to Saudi Arabia.
Wilson said it would be a “relief valve” for the industry after restrictions were imposed following the Awassi deaths.
The federal government tightened restrictions on live exports to the Middle East in 2020, banning the practice from occurring during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer months.
The Awassi left Fremantle in 2017 with 63,804 sheep bound for the Middle East, travelling to Qatar before reaching Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
About 3.7 per cent of the animals on board died over the course of the 21-day journey, well above the 2 per cent threshold required to trigger a government inquiry.
The incident made headlines after footage captured on board the ship showing scores of dead sheep being scraped off the floor and hauled into the ocean was published by the media.
The federal government has promised to ban the live export trade but is yet to give a timeframe for the shutdown, saying only it will not happen in its first term.
Federal Labor MP for Fremantle Josh Wilson said aborting the judicial proceedings would reinforce why a total ban on the live export trade was needed.
“It appears to show that our regulatory framework doesn’t respond to the worst instances of animal cruelty,” he said.
“How is it that thousands of sheep can be boiled alive and drowned in their own waste and no-one is held accountable?
“All the more reason to move forward with a transition out of the intrinsically harmful live export trade.”
Jed Goodfellow from the Australian Alliance for Animals said that inexplicably dropping the charges at the eleventh hour raised more questions than answers.
“Is the government saying it is too expensive to uphold the law when it comes to animal cruelty?” Goodfellow said.
Jed Goodfellow, co-director of Australian Alliance for Animals.
“It’s essentially saying that if a defendant has deep pockets, they’ll get a free pass on alleged breaches of the law.
“It simply doesn’t add up and that’s why we’re calling for the matter to be referred to the WA Crime and Corruption Commission for immediate inquiry.”
The Australian Livestock Exporters’ Council declined to comment while the matter was still before the court.
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