FEI Tribunal rules against two officials in UAE endurance scandal

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gallop-endurance400Two men who held senior roles within the United Arab Emirates Equestrian Federation (EEF) have been suspended as FEI officials over their failure to observe the world governing body’s rules and regulations.

The cases against Dr Hallvard Sommerseth and Abdul Aziz Sheikh arose from investigations into a series of race results from the UAE which substantially mirrored those of previous contests.

The FEI Tribunal published its decisions this week in the two cases.

Sommerseth, former head of the Veterinary Department at the EEF, was suspended as an FEI official for two years for non-compliance with FEI rules and regulations and his involvement in the events in which the duplicate results were submitted to the FEI.

Sheikh, former head of the EEF Endurance Department, was suspended from acting as an FEI official for 18 months.

The tribunal found that Sommerseth had been “grossly negligent with regards to his duties as an FEI official” during the events.

Sommerseth has been under a provisional suspension, imposed by FEI Secretary General Sabrina Ibáñez, since August 31 last year.

The tribunal’s suspension, which prevents Sommerseth from acting as an FEI official or having any involvement in FEI activities at a national or international level, runs until April 15 next year.

The tribunal also fined Sommerseth 4000 Swiss francs and ordered him to pay 1500 Swiss francs towards the costs of the legal procedure.

Sommerseth has the right to appeal the decision within 21 days from March 10. Any appeal would be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The tribunal traversed the facts of the case, which arose following a March 2015 report in the British newspaper, The Telegraph, alleging that various endurance races had taken place in the UAE where false details of riders, times and results had officially been submitted to the FEI.

Subsequent inquiries by the Equine Community Integrity Unit and the EEF established that races had been run between November 2012 and January 2015 in which results had been duplicated or copied from other events. It was established that timing systems had not been used and accurate timings had not been taken of each competitor’s phases. Some were CEI (international) events.

The time-keeping shortcomings ultimately led to the duplicated/copied results being submitted from previous events.

The FEI had submitted to the tribunal panel, comprising Henrik Arle, Armand Leone and Laurent Niddam, that Sommerseth had committed numerous serious breaches of the rules of endurance and in doing so had violated the common principles of behaviour, fairness and accepted standards of sportsmanship that were expected of an FEI official.

The FEI noted that, as a technical delegate, Sommerseth had been one of the most senior FEI officials at the events in question and, under the rules of endurance, had been entrusted with carrying out several important duties on behalf of the FEI.

There was, it said, no ambiguity regarding the necessity to have accurate time recording, and that this was precisely the kind of technical element that a technical delegate was supposed to oversee and check for compliance with the rules.

During his interview with the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit on June 29 last year, Sommerseth said there had been “no exact timing in minutes and seconds”, and “no timing in this ride”.

He further explained that there had, however, been a list of horses that had qualified and the results had to be sent to the FEI. He said that, since the FEI had required a certain format of results, including timing, he did not consider using existing rides, that had approximately the same speed, as cheating.

He later clarified that time-keeping for the qualification rides outside the three main endurance bases had been done with manual timepieces, such as stopwatches, without any expensive computerised support. He clarified that if he had said, “there was no timing” during the ECIU interview, he had meant “no normal computer timing” which was in place in the three endurance villages in the UAE.

During an FEI Tribunal hearing by conference call on February 25 this year, Sommerseth said he was a veterinarian employed by the UAE national federation as head of its veterinary department. He had been put in the role of technical delegate by the national federation and he had to obey his employer.

He insisted that he did not know that the Endurance and IT departments of the UAE national federation had duplicated the results to be sent to the FEI, and that he apologized for that. However, this duplication of results had nothing to do with the rides as such, as the rides had in actual fact taken place.

Further, he said that although he found it very sad that the reputation of the FEI had been damaged, in his opinion he should not have to be taking the blame for that.

In answering a claim by the FEI that Sommerseth had not been consistent with his evidence regarding the timing aspect, he said that when he had previously mentioned “no timing” had been in place, he had meant that there had been “no specific timing” and “no specific time keepers” in place, apart from the officials with hand watches recording the starting and finishing time.

The tribunal ruled that Sommerseth was responsible for the lack of time-keeping and for the consequences resulting from this lack of time-keeping.

“The tribunal finds however that the duplication of results reported to the FEI is not directly attributable to Dr Sommerseth since he was not the person actually filling out the forms to report these duplicated results to the FEI, although it is unlikely that such incorrect reporting would have taken place had there been a proper timing in place.

It continued: “Regarding the seriousness of the offence the tribunal finds that one and the same rule breach had been repeated multiple times over a vast period of time, ie, from 2012 to 2014.

“Given the seniority of Dr Sommerseth as an FEI official and his involvement within the sport, the tribunal is of the opinion that Dr Sommerseth has at least been grossly negligent with regards to his duties as FEI official during the events.”

“The tribunal does not agree with the FEI’s claim that Dr Sommerseth had jeopardized horse welfare by the lack of timing implemented at the events.

“The tribunal is of the opinion that this claim is too far of a reach. In this respect the tribunal understands that the rides were not competitive because they were organized as such, without prize money and with modest average speed, none of which is against applicable rules; thus it was not the lack of timing that made the rides not competitive.

“The tribunal is therefore of the opinion that even if there had been proper timing in place, nothing would have prevented a rider from completing a ride at a slow speed for the sole purpose of qualifying to the next level of FEI endurance events.

“Given the above, the tribunal decides to impose a two-year period of suspension on Dr Sommerseth during which period he is suspended from acting as an FEI official or having any involvement in FEI activities at a national or international level.”

The tribunal, sitting with the same panel but in a separate hearing, imposed an 18-month suspension on Abdul Aziz Sheikh.

Sheikh had been provisionally suspended by the FEI secretary general on October 13 last year for consistently failing to observe the FEI’s rules and regulations over several years, and for allowing several endurance events to proceed without accurate timing systems.

The FEI Tribunal ruling means he will be suspended until April 12 next year, taking into account the provisional suspension already imposed by the secretary general. Sheikh was also fined 3000 Swiss francs and was ordered to pay 1500 Swiss francs towards the costs of the legal procedure.

He has 21 days to lodge an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport should he wish to do so.

The tribunal traversed similar facts to those outlined in the Sommerseth case. It was confirmed that Sheikh had acted as president of the ground jury at eight of the CEI events in which results were duplicated from previous events. These CEIs took place between April 19, 2012, and May 22, 2013.

The FEI submitted that Sheikh had committed numerous serious breaches of the rules of endurance and in doing so had violated the common principles of behaviour, fairness and accepted standards of sportsmanship that were expected of an FEI official.

Sheikh was interviewed by the Equestrian Community Integrity Unit on June 29 last year.

He in essence confirmed that there had not been any timing system in place for the events. He said: “… I can tell you about the rides where we have done where there is no timing system. What we have done we have taken the order of finish; we have inserted the name of the riders and the horses and submitted to the national federation. Now [the] national federation they have forwarded to the FEI without realising that there is no fresh timing in there, they should have left it blank or something you know.”

Sheikh, before being provisionally suspended, offered his sincere apologies.

He had further explained that the schedules for the events had only listed a minimum speed of 12kmh under the item “time limit” as part of the specific technical conditions. On that basis, the rides had been allowed to take place without any accurate timing system.

In its ruling, the tribunal said it took note that Sheikh had apologised for his wrongdoing, and at the time accepted that a provisional suspension be imposed.

“Given the above, the tribunal decides to impose an 18 months period of suspension on Mr Sheikh during which period he is suspended from acting as an FEI official or having any involvement in FEI activities at a national or international level.”

The Sommerseth decision can be read in full here

The Sheikh decision can be read in full here

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