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Monday, 1 June 2009

Outrage in Kenya over sentence for white landowner


NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — In a case that stirred fierce resentments over race and land, a Kenyan judge on Thursday sentenced the son of a baron to eight months in prison for killing a black poacher on his vast family estate.

The sentence handed down to Thomas Cholmondeley — a fraction of the possible life in prison he faced — provoked shouts of protest from Maasai tribesmen and sighs of relief from white landowners, both of whom packed into the crowded courtroom.

Judge Muga Apondi last week convicted Cholmondeley of manslaughter in the 2006 shooting of a 37-year-old black poacher, Robert Njoya. The judge had reduced the charge down from murder, saying he believed Cholmondeley's attempts to give Njoya first aid helped prove that he accidentally shot the poacher when aiming at his dogs.

On Thursday, the judge said he took the three years Cholmondeley had already served into account, concluding, "I hereby wish to impose a light sentence on the accused to allow him to reflect on his life."

Cholmondeley's parents, Lord and Lady Delamere, listened to the verdict along with Sarah Njoya, the widow of the dead poacher, and traditionally dressed Maasai activists whose elongated earlobes brushed the traditional red-checked blankets they wore.

The sentence provoked immediate protests from the public gallery, where women wrapped in colorful cloths wearing traditional beaded jewelry waved signs depicting guns and dead bodies.

"We want justice," read one.

The tall, bespectacled Cholmondeley, who has been imprisoned in squalid conditions since his arrest in May 2006, will return to the maximum security prison, defense lawyer Fred Ojiambo said.

The prosecution said it would consider appealing the sentence, which Ojiambo described as "very just."

Njoya's death was the second time in just over a year that Cholmondeley had shot and killed a black man on his largely ungated farm. The first shooting did not come to trial, sparking protests from locals who said there had been high-level government intervention in the case.

Grievances raised by the case reach far beyond the Cholmondeley family. Some Kenyans resent all white farmers as symbols of the British colonists who stole land from local tribes.

After independence in 1963, Britain funded a scheme to transfer some of that land into African hands. Most of the land, however, was taken by powerful local politicians, forcing the original inhabitants to disperse to other, already crowded areas.

That injustice still rankles — and it contributed to bloody tribal clashes sparked by Kenya's disputed 2007 election, when politicians resurrected the issue to mobilize their supporters against political rivals. Over 1,000 people were killed, many of them slum dwellers hacked or bludgeoned to death in the lake-studded Rift Valley where the Cholmondeley estate lies.

"This court understands the undercurrents (of the case), but I believe the executive is dealing with the issues of land," Apondi said in court, referring to both the postelection violence and protests following the first shooting on the Cholmondeley estate.

Njoya's impoverished widow, who has four children, said she was planning to file a civil suit against the family after consulting her lawyers. Currently, she said she is earning around $2 a day for farm work.

"I am still struggling to survive," Sarah Njoya said from the battered public minibus taking her home. "I just want a future for my children."

Ojiambo said she might be offered financial support for her children but the Cholmondeleys had not yet discussed the issue.

Will Knocker, a family friend, said Cholmondeley's family was distraught at the thought of him enduring further prison time.

"(Although they're) probably very pleased considering what we thought may happen three days ago," he said.

Cholmondeley was educated at Eton, one of Britain's most exclusive schools, and is the great-grandson of the third Baron Delamere, one of Kenya's first important white settlers more than a century ago. The third baron was famous for riding his horse into one of Nairobi's hotels and shooting out the bottles behind the bar.

The trial has also evoked memories of the fourth Baron Delamere, Cholmondeley's grandfather. He was the fourth husband of Diana Broughton, a blonde socialite whose lovers were rumored to outnumber her jewels.

Broughton's lover was shot in the head on the outskirts of Nairobi in the 1940s and her second husband, Jock Broughton, was tried, and acquitted, for the murder.

The episode inspired a book and 1987 film, both called "White Mischief," which highlighted the adulterous, alcoholic lives of some of Kenya's early colonialists in the fertile Rift Valley.

Associated Press Writer Tom Maliti contributed to this report

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