NAIROBI, KENYA: High Court ordered Deputy President William Ruto on Friday to surrender a 100-acre farm in the lush Rift Valley and pay compensation to a farmer who had accused the politician of grabbing the land during election violence five years ago.
The ruling, seen as a key test of the Kenyan judiciary's newly won independence, came as Ruto and President Uhuru Kenyatta prepare to face trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in connection with the post-2007 election mayhem, in which more than 1,200 people died.
Justice Rose Ougo ordered Ruto to vacate the farm and pay compensation of 5 million shillings ($58,200) to the rightful owner, Adrian Muteshi, 70, who had accused Ruto of evicting his farm workers during the fighting in 2007-08.
A swift and transparent resolution of the land dispute involving Ruto, filed in late 2010, is seen as a critical test for the courts, which have been strengthened by a new constitution making them more independent of the politicians.
Kenyan judges have long been seen as hirelings eager to issue rulings at the whim of the political elite.
Ruto had argued that the land had been legally transferred from Muteshi to a third party, Dorothy Yator, from whom the deputy president said he had purchased the land. The judge ruled that Ruto had acquired the land fraudulently.
"I order the deputy president to pay 5 million shillings to the farmer as compensation ... I conclusively find that Muteshi is the owner of the land," Justice Ougo said in her judgement.
"From the evidence before me, it is clear that there were fraudulent activities in the manner the land was sub-divided and sold," she added.
Ruto's lawyer Katwa Kigen told Reuters he would appeal.
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Muteshi, who said he had fled his land in 2008 at the height of the post-election clashes, welcomed the verdict.
"I am a happy man since the land in question has been given back to me," he told Reuters outside the court after the verdict, though he added that the compensation was not enough.
The war crimes trial of Kenyatta and Ruto is due to begin at the ICC in The Hague on November 12. Both men deny the charges that they orchestrated the election violence in 2007-08.
Chief Justice Willy Mutunga was appointed in 2011 to reform a legal system seen as corrupt and inefficient.
He has sacked judges found by a tribunal to be corrupt, encouraged new ones to be independent in their decisions and brought in measures to hasten the resolution of cases.