White Kenyan aristocrat convicted of shooting poacher

NAIROBI Thu May 7, 2009 12:33pm EDT

Kenya's most famous white settler Tom Cholmondeley listens during the proceedings of his case at the High Court in Nairobi, May 7, 2009. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna

Kenya's most famous white settler Tom Cholmondeley listens during the proceedings of his case at the High Court in Nairobi, May 7, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Antony Njuguna

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NAIROBI (Reuters) - The heir to Kenya's most famous white settler family was convicted Thursday of shooting a black poacher on his estate in a case highlighting the east African nation's delicate colonial legacy.

The High Court acquitted Tom Cholmondeley -- a descendant of Lord Delamere who came to Kenya from Britain a century ago -- of murder but found him guilty of manslaughter in the 2006 death of Robert Njoya on the family's 55,000-acre ranch.

"My hope is that this ruling will act to warn errant white farmers that there is rule of law in this country," said Benjamin Mungania, a human rights activist in the Naivasha area where Cholmondeley and his family come from.

Justice Muga Apondi said sentencing would be given at a later day, meaning Cholmondeley's dream of walking free on Thursday after three years in jail was dashed.

He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The long-running trial has touched on deep sensibilities over race and ownership inequities in the east African country.

Some called it a case "between the haves and have-nots."

The judge said he was sympathetic to Cholmondeley's argument of self-defense in the confrontation with Njoya after finding him pursuing wildlife with dogs on the family's property near Lake Naivasha in Kenya's Great Rift Valley.

"The survival principle is very basic to human beings," Apondi said, concluding that Cholmondeley had no "malice aforethought" but did pull the trigger.

The tall and besuited Chomondeley, 40, stood impassive as the judgment was read. His relatives and girlfriend in the courtroom cried after the outcome.

"I am shocked, amazed and dumbstruck. This is not acceptable," defense lawyer Fred Ojiambo said.

"We will appeal. There is no doubt about that."

"HAPPY VALLEY"

Njoya's widow Sarah, a mother of four, said she was satisfied with the judgment, but needed help to escape poverty.

"The court's decision, in my opinion, is not that bad, but I'd like them to consider my children's situation," she told a local television station outside court. "Life has been hard without a husband and no father for my children."

The trial was the second such case against the Eton-educated aristocrat, also accused of killing a wildlife ranger in 2005.

That case was dropped for lack of evidence, triggering an outcry and suggestions from many Kenyans that their nation still had two sets of laws -- one for whites and one for blacks.

The widow of the ranger, Lucy Sisina, was not happy with Thursday's outcome. "My wish was that he would have been convicted of murder ... I am still in pain and searching for justice for the death of my late husband," she told Reuters.

Both cases fanned simmering colonial-era resentment against settlers who snatched large swathes of land during British rule.

Local Maasai groups had prepared protests for Thursday in case Cholmondeley was released, and police were out in force outside the court and around Naivasha.

But the verdict left the would-be demonstrators confused.

The flamboyant lifestyle of the original Lord Delamere and other wealthy white settlers from central Kenya's "Happy Valley" set inspired a book and the 1987 film "White Mischief."

Although Kenyans sometimes complain about white farmers, many also resent wealthy black Kenyans who gave themselves huge tracts of land after independence from Britain in 1963.

Cholmondeley's family's Soysambu Ranch teems with eland, zebra and giraffes. It is surrounded by foreign-owned flower farms drawing dirt-poor workers living in nearby slums.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Helen Nyambura; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Jack Kimball)

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