Page last updated at 11:20 GMT, Saturday, 9 May 2009 12:20 UK

Kenya's slow path to justice

Following the conviction of Thomas Cholmondeley for the manslaughter of stonemason Robert Njoya, Adam Mynott considers why the trial took 30 months to reach a conclusion.

Soda lakes like Lake Nakuru run the length of the Rift Valley

Kenya's Great Rift Valley is as spectacular and awe-inspiring as its name suggests. A vast, gaping rent in the earth's crust filled by red earth and dotted with fresh water and saline lakes.

Its harsh environment is populated by some of the hardiest souls on earth - the Maasai, the Samburu, the Turkana, who live surrounded by remarkable flora and fauna.

Huge and largely untamed, the Great Rift Valley can render the 21st Century visitor almost speechless in wonder. The effect of its feral splendour on the first Europeans to settle there can only be imagined.

But it gripped people and enticed them to stay, to struggle against pest, disease, drought and famine. By definition, it attracted an extraordinary, hardy stock of man and woman and fashioned an even tougher one.

The progeny of some of those early settlers have been sitting at the back of Kenya's High Court watching the trial of one of their number - Thomas Patrick Gilbert Cholmondeley.

Slow progress

It has at times been testing. Testing of patience and testing of the spirit.

Thomas Cholmondeley (C) (Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)
During the trial, the prosecution called 38 witnesses and the defence nine

Tom Cholmondeley was arrested in May 2006. The trial began in September that year.

Naively perhaps I was unprepared for what followed. The trial limped into action and has not broken out of a hobble since.

I have not counted how many days the trial has occupied, but it cannot have averaged more than a couple a month. So, in 30 months I doubt there have been more than 50 or 60 days in court.

Typically on one of the days set aside for the hearing, Tom Cholmondeley would arrive at the courthouse in the back of a prison van with two dozen other inmates from the notorious Kamiti maximum security prison on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Handcuffed, they would spill out of the back of the truck and be ushered down to holding cells on the lower floors of the High Court.

Legal backlog

Meanwhile, in court, Judge Muga Apondi, presiding over one of the most high-profile trials in Kenya's history, is faced with a string of other indictments to process first.

Serah Njoya, the widow of Robert Njoya (Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)
Robert Njoya's widow, Serah, has been left with four children to bring up

Prison officers lead forward a succession of desperate men and women, charged with a variety of crimes.

Often language poses a problem and the court waits while a Somali or a Kikuyu translator is found.

Tom Cholmondeley would have left the prison before 7.30am. He is not led into the courtroom before 11am. Already his day in court has been reduced to a few grabbed hours.

The ponderous delay to justice in Kenya is largely a measure of the mountainous backlog of untried cases, weighing the system down - criminal, commercial, matrimonial, the lot.

Kenya's attorney general estimated the other day that there were 877,000 cases in the Kenyan legal system that had not been processed.

There are too few judges and too few lawyers to try cases, but the problems are compounded by structures which seem designed to thwart timely resolution.

Time to think

Every word uttered during the two and a half years of the trial has been taken down in long-hand by Mr Justice Apondi.

His fastidiousness and dedication to the task are admirable, but a few trained stenographers would transform life at the Nairobi High Court.

One lawyer representing the state in the Cholmondeley trial spoke so slowly that even the judge had time to pause and gaze around the room as he wrote

The necessity for the judge to write down every single utterance adds to the glacial progress of cross-examination.

"Professor So-and-so, you are a ballistics expert. Can you please tell m'lord, why, in your opinion, the gun, exhibit 813 is the weapon used by the accused? I said your honour, the weapon... used by... the accused. Professor So-and-so, please carry on."

"Well every weapon leaves unique identifying marks on..."

"Please professor will you speak more slowly…."

It also means that the barristers in court appear to have unconsciously adopted an incredibly slow pattern of speech, consistent with the cursive speed of the man in the scarlet gown.

One lawyer representing the state in the Cholmondeley trial spoke so slowly that even the judge had time to pause and gaze around the room as he wrote and it gave what I am sure was the mistaken impression that the prosecutor was pausing so frequently because he needed to think afresh between every word.

As the trial came to a close and Tom Cholmondeley was convicted of the manslaughter of Robert Njoya, the 30 or so television cameras in court focused on the reactions of his mother and father, his girlfriend and others in the court.

The lead defence counsel, Fred Ojiambo, could not contain his fury. "This is stunning and unbelievable; the judge has dismissed all the scientific evidence without taking any of it into consideration. We will appeal."

If leave to appeal is granted, Kenya's judicial system will be on trial again.

How to listen to: From our own Correspondent

Profile: Thomas Cholmondeley
07 May 09 |  Africa
Shock and relief at Kenya conviction
07 May 09 |  Africa
Country profile: Kenya
07 May 11 |  Country profiles

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