In Kenya, white aristocrat's prison sentence brings noisy protest

The murder case against Thomas Cholmondeley exposed rifts of class and race. Imprisoned already for three years, he received eight months in prison.

By , Correspondent

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    In a case that has galvanized racial tensions in Kenya, Tom Cholmondeley, the heir to the east African country's most famous white settler family, received an eight-month sentence Thursday for killing a black poacher.
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Noisy protests erupted in a packed courtroom today when Thomas Cholmondeley, heir to Kenya's best-known white settler family, was given an eight-month sentence for the manslaughter of a black poacher shot on his family estate in 2006.

"I hereby sentence the accused to eight months in prison," declared Judge Muga Apondi to the wood-paneled and high-ceilinged courtroom jammed with journalists and spectators where the drama has played out for the past three years.

Immediately, protesters in the public gallery unfurled banners reading "Butcher of Naivasha," and began chanting in Kiswahili, the local language. The anger reveals the rifts of race and wealth that run through Kenyan society.

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On the street outside the Nairobi High Court one man, who would not give his name, said: "If it was a black man, the sentence would have been different. It is the color and the origins of this man. It is in insult! But it is justice the Kenyan way," he added, alluding to the failings that many see in Kenya's judicial system.

Mr. Cholmondeley's defense lawyer Fred Ojiambo called it "a just sentence." The public prosecutor said he would launch an appeal, calling the sentence "far too lenient."

A fatal encounter on his estate

The controversial case is more than three years old.

On the evening of May 10, 2006, while out walking with a friend on the family's 56,000-acre Soysambu estate, Cholmondeley bumped into a gang of poachers.

The poachers hunted with dogs and were armed with bows and arrows, pangas (machetes), and sticks. One poacher, a stonemason called Robert Njoya, carried the gutted and headless carcass of a gazelle on his shoulders. Cholmondeley (pronounced chum-lee) had a bolt-action Winchester rifle slung over his shoulder to protect against buffalo.

Many of the dwindling number of white farmers – the descendants of early 20th-century settlers – have suffered violent thefts in recent years and they know that a gang of trespassers on their land is rarely good news.

Cholmondeley dropped to one knee and fired three shots, killing two of the dogs and leaving Njoya with a fatal wound. Despite Cholmondeley's attempts to staunch the bleeding and rush Njoya to hospital, he later bled to death.

Cholmondeley denied the charge of murder, claiming to have shot in self-defense and killed Njoya accidentally. But Judge Muga Apondi described as "an afterthought" Cholmondeley's surprise witness-stand claim that his friend – a rally driver called Carl "Flash" Tundo – also carried a gun and may have fired the killing bullet.

Last week, Judge Apondi found Cholmondeley, who has been held in prison since the shooting, guilty of manslaughter, something that surprised many Kenyans, who have become accustomed to the idea that the rich don't serve jail time.

It was doubly surprising, because Cholmondeley has previously killed someone and got off scot-free. The previous occasion was in 2005, when he shot another black man, Samson Sisina, an undercover game warden. That time, Kenya's attorney general threw the case out, helping to cement the feeling that the privileged are above the law.

Elite family history

Cholmondeley's family history, from his relatives' arrival in Kenya more than a century ago to Cholmondeley's second arrest and trial, encapsulate the tensions over race and land ownership that still exist.

The first white British settlers came to Kenya in the last days of the 19th century led by Lord Delamere, Cholmondeley's great-grandfather. He is as famous for his wild escapades, shooting bottles off bars, and riding his horse through restaurants as he is for his energetic efforts to develop Kenya's agriculture industry.

Academic researchers reckon that the settlers annexed as much as 7 million acres of land for themselves, establishing thousands vast estates in the Rift Valley and on the slopes of Mount Kenya dubbed 'The White Highlands' in colonial days.

Lord Delamere – a hereditary title to which Cholmondeley is the heir – set the template for future generations of playboy settlers dramatized in the book and movie "White Mischief."

With independence in 1963, many whites sold their land and left, but it was Kenya's new black elites who benefited from the redistribution, not the average man. Successive presidents have followed the colonial example in favoring their own tribe increasing resentment and stoking the tensions that erupted following disputed elections last year.

In his sentencing, Judge Apondi referred to that "unprecedented ugliness," and said: "This court understands the undercurrents … of land and other inequalities."

White landholdings are now dwarfed by those of black politicians and their families, but the descendants of white farmers who stayed in Kenya still lead privileged lives cheek by jowl with rural folk, who have neither land nor money.

Many languish for years without trial

Not everyone outside the High Court felt aggrieved.

"They are saying there is one justice for the whites and for the rich and another for poor blacks, but for me it is OK," whispered one man, who would not give his name. "Cholmondeley has been in custody for three years, he has suffered enough."

But there remain signs of inequality in the very fact of his trial. Cholmondeley has languished in a dank jail in a maximum-security prison for the past three years as his trial took its lethargic course.

But the country's overloaded, underfunded and corruptible judicial system faces a logjam of more than 800,000 unprocessed cases, according to Kenya's attorney general. Many are being held with little hope even of a court appearance.

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