Animal cruelty charges against a major live sheep exporter have been dropped at the eleventh hour, after a four-year lead up to a trial.
The matter came before Perth Magistrates Court in a Tuesday afternoon hearing, only a week before Emanuel Exports was due to face trial over the August 2017 mass mortality event on the Awassi Express.
More than 2400 sheep died during the voyage from heat stress, and in 2018 Emanuel Exports was stripped of its licence for more than three years.
Emanuel Exports and its then directors Graham Daws and Michael Stanton were in 2019 all charged with 16 counts of animal cruelty.
Western Australia's Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development had alleged that the sheep suffered unnecessary heat stress that could have been prevented by reducing the number of sheep on the ship, reviewing the transport route or transporting the sheep at a time other than the Northern Hemisphere summer.
But this week charges against Emanuel Exports, Mr Daws and Mr Stanton were all dropped.
The prosecution told Magistrate Gavin Maclean that following detailed statements received from Mr Daws and Mr Stanton in late October, it wished to discontinue the charges subject to section 25 of the Criminal Procedure Act.
Legal representation for Emanuel Exports told the court the company will not be pursuing costs.
Animal rights activists lined the entry to the court with placards ahead of Tuesday's hearing, after news broke early in the week that the charges were likely to be dropped.
At the time, the Australian Alliance for Animals publicly called for the WA Crime and Corruption Commission to conduct an inquiry, but ACM understands no official report of misconduct had been lodged at that point.
After the hearing, the DPIRD issued a statement saying that it had pursued the charges after a thorough investigation but that "after considering all circumstances and available facts in preparation for the trial, DPIRD has decided that it is not in the public interest to continue with the prosecution".
"DPIRD's decision took into account the complexity of the case, the public cost of a trial, the administrative sanction already incurred by the company and changes to operating practices made by the company to prevent similar incidents occurring in the future," the statement said.
"The department also considered the changed industry operating conditions, including the moratorium on live exports during the northern hemisphere summer.
"DPIRD will continue to work with industry to ensure that community expectations with respect to animal welfare are maintained."
Emanuel Exports has issued a statement stating that the company was relieved the charges had been discontinued.
"Previous directors Mike Stanton and Graham Daws fully support the significant changes implemented across the industry," it read.
"The significant improvements implemented in the last five years has demonstrated the livestock export industry is viable, sustainable, and responsive to community expectations around animal welfare outcomes.
"Emanuel have proudly been part of the continuous improvements implemented across the supply chain and actively promoted and supported innovation and technology improvements.
"Good animal welfare outcomes are the core of our business operations.
"We continue to advocate for the livestock export industry because Australia are world leaders and should continue to be part of filling international demand for protein.
"In the current environment we are seeing how important this trade is especially to regional WA.
"Emanuel remains committed to our company goals, rural communities, and stakeholders in the WA sheep industry and we want to continue supplying our Middle East customers with a valuable source of protein."
Australian Live Exporters' Council CEO Mark Harvey-Sutton said it was important to note that DPIRD acknowledged the significant reforms the industry had undertaken.
"We are a reformed industry and at the end of the day this is a decision for the courts and we are very relieved for our members, Emanuel Exports," he said.
WA Agriculture and Food Minister Jackie Jarvis said she was disappointed by the decision, but lawyers advised it was in the best interest of WA taxpayers.
"This case was complex - the animal welfare breaches happened on the high seas beyond the State's jurisdictional limits and there was no guarantee of a conviction," she said.
"By proceeding with it, millions of dollars of taxpayer money would have been put at risk.
"That video onboard the Awassi Express was horrifying and the farmers that I know were shocked by the case. They would not want their sheep to suffer like that.
"However, as a direct result of this case a range of measures have been implemented, including the northern summer export ban, which has improved animal welfare on live export ships.
"I know how important animal welfare is to Western Australians, and the Cook Government strives to ensure that all animals receive appropriate standards of care."
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