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Kenyans tortured under British rule win right to sue

Latest update : 2012-10-05

Three Kenyans who were tortured during the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule can proceed with compensation claims, Britain’s High Court ruled Friday, a judgment that could encourage claims from other victims of colonial-era brutality.

A British court ruled on Friday that three elderly Kenyans who were tortured under British rule in the 1950s could pursue their claim for damages from London, a judgement likely to encourage other claims from victims of colonial-era brutality.

Britain, which had tried for three years to block their legal action, said it was disappointed and planned to appeal while lawyers for the claimants warned the ruling would be studied carefully by victims of other alleged colonial crimes.

Now in their 70s and 80s, the claimants suffered castration, rape and beatings while in detention during a ruthless crackdown by British forces and their Kenyan allies on rebels from the Mau Mau movement fighting for land and freedom.

The trio want Britain to apologise and to fund welfare benefits for Kenyan victims of torture by colonial forces. They were not in court on Friday to hear the ruling but were expected to speak at a news conference in Nairobi later.

"I have reached the conclusion...that a fair trial on this part of the case does remain possible and that the evidence on both sides remains significantly cogent for the court to complete its task satisfactorily," said Judge Richard McCombe.

"The documentation is voluminous...and the government and the military commanders seem to have been meticulous record-keepers."

Dozens of supporters hugged each other and wept for joy at the back of the court in London following the ruling, and lawyers for the Kenyans said it was an historic judgement.

"Following this judgement we can but hope that our government will at last do the honourable thing and sit down and resolve these claims," Martyn Day, a lawyer representing the claimants, said in a statement.

"There will undoubtedly be victims of colonial torture from Malaya to the Yemen from Cyprus to Palestine who will be reading this judgement with great care."

Britain's Foreign Office said it was disappointed and believed the judgement had potentially far-reaching legal implications.

"The normal time limit for bringing a civil action is 3 to 6 years. In this case, that period has been extended to over 50 years despite the fact that the key decision-makers are dead and unable to give their account of what happened," it added in a statement.

"Since this is an important legal issue, we have taken the decision to appeal...At the same time, we do not dispute that each of the claimants in this case suffered torture and other ill treatment at the hands of the Colonial Administration."

Britain first argued that responsibility for what happened during the Mau Mau crisis had passed to the Kenyan government upon independence in 1963.

After a court rejected that position in 2011, the government argued that the case should not proceed because it was brought after the legal time limit.

South Africa's revered Archbishop Desmond Tutu has thrown his moral authority behind the case, accusing Britain of hypocrisy for criticising the human rights record of other countries while refusing to face up to its own.

The case stems from the so-called Kenyan "Emergency" of 1952-1961, during which fighters from the Mau Mau movement attacked British targets, causing panic among white settlers and alarming the authorities in London.

Tens of thousands of rebels were killed by colonial forces and an estimated 150,000 Kenyans, many of them unconnected to the Mau Mau, were held in detention camps likened by a leading historian of the period to Soviet gulag labour camps.

The three claimants, all in their 70s and 80s, are Paulo Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara. A fourth claimant, Ndiku Mutwiwa Mutua, has died since the legal action began.

The Mau Mau insurgency caused deep trauma on all sides and remains controversial in Kenya, where the first two presidents after independence in 1963, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi, tried to minimise its role in the national fight for freedom.

The Mau Mau split Kenya's most numerous ethnic group, the Kikuyu, between those who joined the insurgency and so-called "loyalists" who sided with the British.

Many former Mau Mau fighters endured a lifetime of poverty after coming out of their forest hide-outs, never having won the land they fought for as it was given mostly to their loyalist foes.

A legal ban on the Mau Mau movement was lifted only in 2003, after President Mwai Kibaki came to power.


Date created : 2012-10-05


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