Tortured Kenyans win historic ruling in Britain
Three tortured Kenyans who suffered abuses by British forces in the 1950s won the right to take their case to trial. The ruling could pave the way for future cases from Britain's former colonies.
A historic legal ruling in London today could leave Britainâ€™s government facing dozens of new court cases alleging systematic torture by the officers of its former empire dating back decades.
Three elderly Kenyans who say Britainâ€™s imperial administration beat, raped, or castrated them in the 1950s have won the right to take their allegations to a full trial after a three-year legal battle. The claimants are asking for compensation and a government apology.
The High Court in London today dismissed arguments from Britainâ€™sÂ Foreign Office that a fair trial was impossible because many potential witnesses have already died and because the events in question happened so long ago.
â€śItâ€™s a seismic ruling, with implications in multiple other former British colonial territories,â€ť says Caroline Elkins, a Harvard University professor and author of â€śImperial Reckoning,â€ť a study of Britainâ€™s conduct during its imperial administration in Kenya.
â€śThis case didnâ€™t come out of thin air. There are other colonial theaters â€“ Palestine, Northern Ireland, Malaya, Aden, Cyprus â€“ where a very similar kind of systematic brutality and violence played out,â€ť Ms. Elkins says.
â€śThe High Court has stated that, even 50 years later, governments canÂ be held accountable for their actions. While it does not say that theyÂ will be, or what the outcome will be, it opens the door for theseÂ other cases to start too,â€ťÂ Elkins says.
In his ruling today, Justice Richard McCombe said there was enough potential evidence in Britainâ€™s imperial archives available to both prosecution and defense to permit legal action to move forward.
â€śThe documentation is voluminous â€¦ the governments and military commanders seem to have been meticulous record keepers,â€ť Justice McCombe said when reading the ruling aloud in court.
â€śI have reached the conclusion â€¦ 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,â€ť McCombe Â said.
Assaulted and detained
The three claimants involved in yesterdayâ€™s historic ruling, Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambuga Wa Nyingi, and Jane Muthoni Mara, all in their 70s and 80s, say they were violently assaulted during their detention by British forces ruling Kenya in the 1950s and 1960s.
They were interned during the Mau Mau rebellion, a revolt by mostly ruralÂ Kenyans against their imperial masters that led to thousands of arrests, detentions, and violent assaults on Kenyans. Thousands died.
Britain does not deny that its colonial officers "tortured" or "ill treated" Mr. Nzili, Mr. Wa Nyingi, and Ms. Mara. But all three are asking for an official apology from the British government and compensation for injuries they suffered, which includes lifelong complications that followed their abuse.
Martyn Day, the British lawyer representing the three Kenyans, called the courtâ€™s decision today â€śhistoricâ€ť and said it would â€śreverberate around the world.â€ť
"There will undoubtedly be victims of colonial torture from Malaya to the Yemen from Cyprus to Palestine who will be reading this judgment with great care,â€ť Mr. Day said.
â€śThe British Government â€¦ has been hiding behind technical legal defenses for three years in order to avoid any legal responsibility,â€ť Day said. â€śFollowing this judgment we can but hope that our government will at last do the honorable thing and sit down and resolve these claims.â€ť
Room for appeal
Dozens of elderly Kenyans gathered at a Nairobi human rights organizationâ€™s office to hear the judgment today, and ululated, clapped, and danced when it was announced.
â€śI hope â€¦ this means that the British government will finally come here to give us something to support our families and to help us,â€ť Wa Nyingi told The Christian Science Monitor after the Justiceâ€™s decision. All three victims were present at the human rights organizationâ€™s office when the announcement was read. Wa Nyingi finds it hard to understand the delay in issuing an apology and compensation, he says.
â€śIt is wrong that this thing is taking so long.â€ť
But he may have to wait even longer. After the ruling was issued, the British government announced it would appeal the decision.
â€śIt seems that their strategy is to continue to fight this thing on legal technicalities until we die, and then the matter will be closed,â€ť says Gitu wa Kahengeri, the head of the Mau Mau Veteransâ€™ Association.
â€śWe are all old people, if they can delay two or three years, it willÂ be too late.â€ť
A fourth claimant, Ndiku Mutwiwa Mutua, died earlier this year.
South Africaâ€™s Archbishop Desmond Tutu called on Britain to â€śshow some compassionâ€ť following the ruling.
â€śThe British Government must now resolve this issue once and for all,â€ť Mr. Tutu said.
â€śThey have admitted these elderly Kenyans were tortured by British officials but have refused to apologize or to show any concern for their welfare. The Courts have now rejected their legal defense twice in two years. It is high time the government stops avoiding responsibility and shows some compassion.â€ť
A spokesman for the British Foreign Office explained the reason for appeal centers around the rulingâ€™s â€śpotentially significant and far reaching legal implications.â€ť
â€śThe normal time limit for bringing a civil action is 3 to 6 years,â€ť the spokesman said.
â€śIn 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. Since this is an important legal issue, we have taken the decision to appeal.â€ť