Britain’s colonial record in East Africa went on trial today after a trio of elderly Kenyans who claim they were brutally tortured and sexually abused during the 1950s began a landmark battle to sue the government.
If they are successful the case would force Britain to officially face up to some of the less proud moments of its recent past and could result in a deluge of compensation claims from former colonial subjects around the world.
The three Kenyans – two men and a woman – were caught up in the violence surrounding the so-called Mau Mau Uprising between 1952 and 1960. Faced with an armed independence movement, Britain’s colonial authorities responded with lethal force, imprisoning thousands of Kenyans and forcibly resettling many more.
Although both sides were accused of committing atrocities there is ample evidence to show that torture and sexual abuse was used by the colonial authorities to punish those suspected of being Mau Mau fighters and supporters.
Starting today Jane Muthoni Mara, Paulo Muoka Nzili and Wambuga Wa Nyingi will begin giving evidence which their lawyers say paints a devastating portrait of how Britain’s colonial forces behaved during the uprising.
Mr Nzili claims he was castrated by colonial officials following his arrest whilst Mr Nyingi says he was beaten unconscious in an incident in which eleven others were clubbed to death. Mrs Mara was allegedly subjected to horrendous sexual violence.
In Kenya and across Africa the case is being watched closely. Africans are painfully aware that the British government has a history of lecturing the continent about its human rights record whilst doing little to publicly recognise its own abuses when it was a major colonial power there. If the three claimants are successful, the case could fire the starting gun for a raft of similar compensation claims.
Among those outside the High Court this morning was Naomi Nzyula, an elderly woman who said she was arrested 24 December 1952 and violently sexually assaulted at an internment camp. She was pregnant at the time and lost her child. Although she is not one of the test case claimants, she hopes to bring her own proceedings if her compatriots are successful. “My human rights, and those of my family, were greatly violated,” she told The Independent. “ All I am hoping for is justice from the British government.”
The Foreign Office has been determined to fight any attempt to pay compensation. They argue that all sides were caused pain during the Kenyan emergency and that compensation claims are being brought too late.
Last year government lawyers argued that London should not be liable for historical abuses because Kenya was now a new country and the responsibility for any compensation rested with the authorities in Nairobi. But a High Court judge rejected that argument allowing the current proceedings to go ahead.
Now the government is arguing that the statute of limitations for compensation claims has run out. However the judge has discretion to waive those limitations. Lawyers for the Kenyans argue that the case is so important and so well documented that it should be heard.
Opening the case yesterday Richard Hermer QC said any fears that a fair trial wouldn’t be possible because so much time had elapsed were misplaced. “This is not a case where there is a dearth of evidence,” he said. “This is a case where there is an extraordinary amount of evidence.”
The claimants’ hands have been strengthened by the emergence last year of a secret Foreign Office archive of papers on the Kenyan emergency.
Paul Muite, a Kenyan lawyer who represents victims of colonial era repression, told The Independent that there were “thousands” of potential claimants waiting to see what happens over the next two weeks. He criticised the British government for choosing to fight the case on legal technicalities, rather than defend the case “on its merits”.
“The picture that emerges is that the British government is aware these victims are in their 80s and 90s and they are buying time for them to die out,” he said.
Guilty past: the secret archive
The compensation claims brought by the Kenyan victims of torture has already had one extraordinary consequence: to reveal the existence of the Foreign Office's secret archive at Hanslope Park, a manor house in Buckinghamshire. The Kenyans' lawsuit led to the unearthing of thousands of files from the colonial era that were covertly flown to the UK and kept locked away for 50 years in the high-security facility – an attempt to hide the dirty secrets from the last chapter of the British Empire, including ministers' awareness of the torture and murder of Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya. The 8,800 files at Hanslope contain among them the revelation that many thousands of other papers, which detail some of the most shameful episodes from the final years of British colonial rule, were systematically destroyed to stop them falling into the hands of post-independence governments.The Foreign Office has promised to release the papers and a historian has been appointed to oversee the review.