Saturday, February 23, 2008



By Adrian Blomfield

A Kenyan aristocrat on trial for his life has accused powerful political forces of fabricating a murder case against him to seize the estate that his great-grandfather crafted from the bush a century ago.

For nearly two years, Thomas Cholmondeley, the scion of Kenya’s most famous white settler family, has languished in a maximum security prison outside Nairobi waiting for his chance to defend himself.

Cholmondeley, who will become the sixth Baron Delamere when his father dies, accepts that his aristocratic roots, colonial British background and Eton education may have already convicted him in the eyes of the public.

Speaking at the notorious Kamiti prison, Cholmondeley said racial prejudice masked the real issues that led to him being charged with the murder of a black “poacher” in 2006. "Racism, land and politics are the three things that link this case," he said. “Kenya has never been the bucolic wonderland that it seemed. There have always been political forces jockeying underneath it. Respect for property rights has almost disappeared."

He said the first act of the police after the shooting was to ask him to hand over the title deeds to his estate! Confined in a cell infested with rats and cockroaches measuring six by nine feet, he hopes that later this year he can begin his defence in a trial that has already dragged on for 18 months.

How keen certain government officials will be to allow him to take the witness stand remains to be seen.

Last month, Kenya’s divisions brought a wave of violence after a flawed presidential election in December. The same issues lie at the heart of Cholmondeley's case, and his claims could prove embarrassing for the government.

From the outset, the case has had a political dimension. On May 10, 2006, Cholmondeley and a friend, Carl Tundo, stumbled on a group of poachers on the Delamere estate, Soysambu. His lawyers say he and Mr Tundo, following Kenya Wildlife Services regulations, opened fire on the poachers’ dogs. In the late afternoon, a bullet struck Robert Njoya, one of the poachers, in the buttock - an accident that Cholmondeley insists it was, while the prosecution maintains it was murder.

Defense and prosecution agree that Cholmondeley immediately applied a tourniquet to the wound, arranged for Mr Njoya to be taken to hospital, where he eventually died, possibly as a result of lack of medical attention. He called the police and took them to the scene of the shooting.

"If I had really been planning murder, I could have got Carl, who is one of the best rally drivers in Kenya, to drive me across the border to Tanzania or easily taken the police to the wrong place," he said.

In a country riddled with violent crime, intruders and poachers are regularly killed on private land and rarely, if ever, do prosecutions follow. When a white expatriate shot dead two thieves at the Nairobi racecourse, he was hailed as a hero in the Kenyan media, not so with Cholmondeley.

Four cabinet ministers and another senior member of President Mwai Kibaki's government attended Njoya’s funeral and called on Kenyans to "take the law into their own hands" if he was not given the mandatory death sentence.

The outrage partly stemmed from the fact that in 2005 Cholmondeley shot dead a black undercover game warden. He had been involved in an exchange of fire after mistaking the warden for a robber. The case was dropped for lack of evidence. At the same time anti-settler emotions were deliberately stirred up among the Maasai herdsmen who lived on the periphery of Soysambu.

Wild claims followed from the government as officials alleged that whites owned half of the country's arable land and were therefore responsible for the ghastly social conditions in Kenya, not withstanding the fact that the Delameres surrendered 90 per cent of their land after independence in 1963, keeping only Soysambu Estate.
"It’s old fashioned prejudice," said Cholmondeley. "I know that if I had been called anything but Delamere things wouldn't have turned out like this.”