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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.

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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.

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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.