Trial halted after farm worker admits feeding colleague to the lions

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The trial of a white farmer in South Africa who is accused of feeding one of his workers to a pride of lions was unexpectedly adjourned yesterday after one of his co-accused surprised his lawyer by pleaded guilty.

The trial of a white farmer in South Africa who is accused of feeding one of his workers to a pride of lions was unexpectedly adjourned yesterday after one of his co-accused surprised his lawyer by pleading guilty.

Richard Mathebula, 41, told the court in Phalaborwa, 280 miles north-east of Johannesburg, that he would plead guilty because he "followed the instructions of his employer".

The case has highlighted the brutal treatment of black farmworkers by their wealthy employers, at a time when the South African government wants them to give up part of their land for redistribution to the poor.

Mark Scott-Crossley, 37, is on trial with two of his workers, Mr Mathebula and Simon Mathebula, 43. The Mathebulas are not related. They are accused of murdering Nelson Chisale, 41, in January last year. They had denied the charge.

The state alleges that Mr Chisale had gone back to Mr Scott-Crossley's farm near Hoedspruit on the edge of Kruger national park, to collect his belongings after being dismissed two months earlier for allegedly running a private errand during working hours.

Mr Chisale is said to have been attacked by the Mathebulas with machetes and then tied to a tree. Mr Scott-Crossley was then called to the scene and held a gun to Mr Chisale, who was loaded on to a truck, taken to a lion enclosure at the Mokwalo White Lion Project, and thrown in while still alive, the indictment claims.

Mr Scott-Crossley allegedly ordered Mr Mathebula to dispose of the cord used to tie up Mr Chisale and warned all his alleged accomplices that they would face a similar fate if they informed anyone about what had happened.

Police subsequently recovered his skull, pieces of leg and his bloodied clothes more than a week later when he was reported missing after being last seen entering the farm. A post-mortem examination confirmed that Mr Chisale, who had three children, was killed by the lions.

A police forensic scientist who examined the lion's den told the court that he had found lion faeces mixed with human bones, a human skull with no lower jaw, torn tissue and "a pelvic girdle and a finger with chew marks on the bones". It was a portion of the victim's recovered finger that subsequently helped officers identify the remains as those of Mr Chisale.

Members of the youth league of the ruling African National Congress were among more than 50 protesters outside the courtroom yesterday.Mr Scott-Crossley has faced angry demonstrations at each court appearance. He has spent much of the past year in prison on remand but was granted £25,000 bail last month.

"We are here to make sure that justice is being done," said Bethuel Rasekhotoma, a local ANC youth leader. "We are going to make sure the accused are not let free. The law must take its course."

Another protester Abitha Malatji ­ clutching a placard that read "Life sentence for Mark Crossley" ­ added: "We want three life sentences plus 100 years. All three of them must rot in jail."

A fourth man Robert Mnisi, who claims that Mr Scott-Crossley ordered him to load the victim into the back of the truck before throwing his body into the den, was also arrested along with the accused. He has agreed to testify against them.

The case comes at a highly sensitive time when the ANC has lambasted the judiciary and accused white judges of failing to adapt to the aspirations of the majority. It has cited what it perceives as lenient sentences given to whites accused of killing blacks as one indication of white judges' failure to reform. But the presiding judge in this case is black.

Mr Scott-Crossley is the brother of one of six schoolgirls who disappeared in 1988 and 1989 shortly before a paedophile committed suicide while on the run from police.