The interim suspension of the United Arab Emirates from the FEI over welfare concerns in endurance was putting all equestrian sport in the country in danger, the FEI Tribunal has been told.
The assertion was made during a hearing in which the Emirates Equestrian Federation sought to have its interim suspension set aside pending the outcome of its appeal.
The three-man panel, chaired by Henrik Arle, of Finland, dismissed the request.
The FEI Bureau imposed the suspension on March 12 over welfare concerns arising in the discipline of endurance.
The Emirates Equestrian Federation lodged an appeal a month later against the suspension, which will ultimately be heard by the tribunal. However, it had hoped the tribunal would in the meantime effectively stay the interim suspension while awaiting the full hearing of its appeal.
While the tribunal decision did not deal with the substantive issues arising in the case, it did provide some insights into the UAE federation’s grounds for its appeal.
The decision also provided some insights into the process leading to the suspension, described as being the culmination of a long and ultimately unsuccessful consultation process with the UAE federation.
The UAE federation argued in its submission that the specific circumstances of the case at hand justified the staying of the suspension.
Allowing the FEI Bureau decision to remain in effect until the conclusion of the full appeal would cause “irreparable harm to the appellant and would jeopardise the existence of equestrian sport of endurance in the country of the Appellant”, the UAE asserted.
The UAE further argued that the suspension was having a massive impact on the organisation of future events, and that it was hugely destabilising, putting the whole equestrian sport in the UAE in danger.
It further argued that depriving riders of the right to compete under the flag of their country was a massive sanction that seriously hurt the pride of a rider.
It suggested that granting the stay was in line with the legal principles of the Court of Arbitration for Sport – the highest jurisdiction for sports cases in the world – where panels often preferred to postpone a sanction rather than having a potentially unjustified sanction in force during proceedings.
The UAE also argued that the effects of the FEI Bureau decision effectively deprived the nation of all its rights as a member of the FEI solely on the basis of a written decision of the FEI Bureau, which it said had been taken without exchange of written submissions and without a hearing.
The harm caused by the sanction was both irreparable and extremely severe, as the UAE was de facto “shut down” and put “out of game” before the tribunal had a chance to rule on the matter.
It argued that its interest in having the FEI Bureau decision stayed was overwhelming. The UAE, it noted, would still be bound by the FEI statutes and regulations, and its members would still be obliged to abide by all applicable rules. Granting of the stay would not have a negative effect on the FEI and would help to resolve the issues between the UAE and FEI.
The FEI argued that the UAE had not successfully highlighted circumstances or arguments that would justify the tribunal staying the interim suspension.
The world governing body noted that, under the suspension, there was no possibility of non-endurance UAE horses and athletes being hindered in any way from participation in international events during the suspension.
The FEI further submitted that the UAE had not substantiated its claims of irreparable harm and the reasons for which the existence of equestrian sport in the country would be endangered by the bureau’s decision.
The FEI argued that the suspension had been put in place to protect horse welfare, which was of paramount importance to the organisation. The decision to suspend the UAE was both proportionate and justified in the circumstances at hand.
It said the FEI Bureau decision had been the culmination of a long and ultimately unsuccessful consultation process with the UAE federation, and that the country had been put on notice of the gravity of the matter. It had even been warned in a February 13 letter that sanctions, including possible suspension, were being considered.
Horse welfare was at stake, in the opinion of the FEI, and it had been reasonable for the bureau to impose an immediate suspension. The verb “may” in the relevant statute granted discretion to the deciding body, it argued.
The bureau had imposed the suspension primarily on Horse welfare grounds due to consistent rule breaching by the appellant, and precisely because of the repeated failure of the UAE federation to comply with the statutes and regulations.
The bureau decision had been and was still necessary, the FEI said.
From an FEI perspective, it was not enough for the UAE to simply put appropriate measures and rules in place to address the issues. The UAE federation also needed to take steps to ensure they were implemented in practice.
The FEI could not reasonably be expected to proceed on a mutual trust basis with the Emirates federation, in light of previous non-cooperation with the world governing body – in particular its failure to sign a Memorandum of Understanding previously negotiated between the two parties.
The tribunal, in traversing the facts, noted that the interim suspension resulted from the UAE national federation’s alleged failure to comply with FEI rules and regulations and/or FEI decisions on several occasions.
Specifically, the letter advising of the suspension set out six separate rule breaches: The tribunal decision gave only the following details of these matters:
- Fatality of a Horse competing during a rest period;
- Other horses not complying with the rest periods;
- Not respecting ages of horses;
- Post Mortems;
- CEI3* Endurance Cup, Dubai, 10 January 2015;
- Not cooperating with the FEI/answering FEI’s queries.
The tribunal ruled that the Emirates federation had not laid out all the necessary requirements that would justify a stay being placed on the suspension.
It noted that the FEI Bureau had the right to immediately suspend a national federation over breaches of the principles outlined in the statutes, provided the federation was afforded a right to be heard.
The tribunal noted that the FEI and Emirates federation were in dispute over whether this right to be heard had actually been afforded to the UAE.
A final decision in this respect will have to be taken with the merits of the case, the tribunal ruled, adding that: “Based on the documents submitted so far, the appellant has not established that such right has not been afforded.”
Whether the Emirates federation had acted in breach of the principles outlined in the statutes, and whether the FEI Bureau decision to suspend the UAE was both proportionate and justified in the circumstances, would be decided with the merits of the case once final arguments in respect of the full appeal were heard, the tribunal said.
The tribunal, addressing the UAE’s “irreparable harm” argument and the loss of riders’ rights to compete under their national flag, said the national federation had failed to establish urgency.
“The tribunal understands that no international endurance events are scheduled to take place in the upcoming months, and that the endurance season in the UAE typically runs from October to April.
“As a result the tribunal finds that the appellant has not established urgency, and neither its claim of irreparable harm caused.
“The tribunal therefore finds that the absence of these grounds means that the appellant has not met the requirements for the granting of interim relief and, in such circumstances, granting a stay of the FEI Bureau decision is not justified.”
The tribunal said it did not see why the lifting of the suspension would be necessary for the parties to further strive to solve the present dispute.
“The tribunal can only follow the FEI argumentation that the welfare of horses is of paramount importance, and should not be risked under any circumstances.
“The tribunal therefore finds that the appellant’s interest in having the suspension lifted does not outweigh the FEI’s interest in protecting horse welfare.”
The tribunal also ruled that the FEI headquarters should continue to issue passports for non-endurance horses from the UAE. This followed a request from the Emirates federation to be allowed to issue horse passports for non-endurance horses.