The Birkirkara man who was captured on video footage whipping a fallen horse has been cleared of animal cruelty after a court was presented with overwhelming evidence that the 22-year-old mare did not bear any visible signs of being whipped and was in excellent health.

Alban Josef Saliba, 36, had been arrested after mobile phone footage was uploaded to Facebook in April showing the animal struggling on the ground as it was whipped repeatedly. The incident sparked a public outcry on social media.

Magistrate Aaron Bugeja noted that it had been proven beyond reasonable doubt that the accused had struck the mare several times with the whip. But the court also stressed that that the charge of animal cruelty was not contraventional in nature but criminal. The crime required the specific criminal intent to cause the animal to suffer needlessly.

Animal welfare coordinator Dennis Sciberras, who had inspected the mare, testified that the whipping was "nothing serious". The animal did not bear any lesions or other visible signs of having been whipped. He also noted that the mare had not been washed when he had inspected it since it its coat bore sweat from the day before.

For a 22-year-old mare, it was in very good health, the witness testified, adding that getting a fallen horse back on its feet single-handedly was a difficult task. The whip was a tool which was often used merely to make a noise.

Veterinarian Vanessa Messina told the court that the mare was in pain as a result of its fall, which had probably happened because it had slipped. She, too, confirmed that there were no external signs indicating that the animal had been whipped.

The accused had also taken the witness stand, telling the court that the horse had tripped on a hump in the road. He had used the whip in an effort to get it back on its feet because he feared the mare would injure itself further if left on the ground. His brother had also helped the mare up, the accused said, adding that the mare was dear to him and he in no way wanted to hurt it.

Handing judgment, the court noted that the use of horsewhips was recognised in equestrian circles as an essential tool to control their horses and which could also be used to get a fallen horse back up on its feet.

In view of the accused's explanation and noting the absence of injuries to the horse, the court could not serenely conclude that the accused had intended to cause the animal to suffer unnecessarily, noting that “to the contrary, his intention was the opposite”.

The accused had taken care of the mare for 22 years and had chosen to continue to care for it until it died a natural death instead of putting it down, out of gratitude for the animal's faithful service to the family, the magistrate said, pointing out that these were not typical circumstances of animal cruelty.

Mr Saliba was therefore cleared of all charges brought against him.

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