The British government admitted publicly for the first time today that Kenyans were tortured and sexually abused by colonial forces during the Mau Mau uprising.
The starling admission came as a trio of elderly Kenyans stood up in court to describe how they were beaten, castrated and sexually assaulted by British forces and their Kenyan allies during the pro-independence rebellion.
The three Kenyans are suing the Government in a landmark legal case that could lead to a deluge of compensation claims from victims of British colonial violence around the world. As the first of the three witnesses took the stand this morning in the High Court, the government’s defence lawyer, Guy Mansfield QC, stated publicly that his clients believed those bringing the case are telling the truth about the horrendous violence they suffered.
“I wish to make it clear before I cross examine the three claimants that the defendant [the British Government] does not dispute that each of the claimants suffered torture and other ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.” His comments are the first time someone speaking on behalf of the British government has recognised in a court of law the violence meted out to Mau Mau rebels and suspected sympathisers.
The rebellion took place between 1952 and 1960, resulting in thousands of deaths as Kenyans began agitating for independence. Atrocities were committed on both sides with widespread complaints of systematic torture and abuse carried out in a network of British run prison camps.
Given the elderly age of the three Kenyans and their inability to speak English, most of this morning’s testimony revolved around the two men and one woman publicly confirming that their witness statements to the court are correct.
Their statements, which were made public yesterday, make for harrowing reading and paint a devastating picture of how Britain’s colonial forces behaved in East Africa during the 1950s.
Paulo Nzili, an 83-year-old man from eastern Kenya, was working on a white settler farm when he was abducted by Mau Mau fighters in 1957 and forced into their independence struggle. He ran away after six months but was arrested on the outskirts of Nairobi. He testified that he was taken to Embakasi, a notorious prison camp which was run by a sadistic police officer called Mr Dunman who was known for castrating suspected Mau Mau fighters. Running away from the movement was no defence. On the fourth day inside the camp Mr Nzili was publicly castrated with a pair of pliers normally used on cattle.
“After I was castrated I thought that I had been cut off from any sexual life and that I would never be able to marry and have children, which is a man’s pride,” he said. “I felt completely destroyed and without hope”.
Human rights groups say numerous Kenyans have testified to being castrated at camps run by Mr Dunman and other detention centres.
Wambuga Wa Nyingi avoided castration but was imprisoned for nearly ten years. He says he was regularly beaten in British custody. On one day he saw 14 detainees beaten to death with batons by British and Kenyan loyalist guards.
Speaking on the witness stand yesterday he explained why he knew his guards were part of the British Empire. “They were all on the side of the foreign government,” he said. “They would wear this thing that identified themselves as home guard or colonial army.”
The witness testimonies also detail how sexual violence towards women was rampant in British controlled custody. Jane Muthoni Mara was 15-years-old when she was arrested for being a suspected Mau Mau sympathiser and taken to the Gatithi screening camp. According to her witness statements she was regularly beaten and in once instant had a glass soda bottle forcibly inserted into her vagina.
“I was in so much pain I could not stop crying or screaming,” she said. “I felt completely and utterly violated by this sexual torture.” Kenyan human rights groups and historians have collected multiple testimonies from women which suggest that sexual violence of this kind was commonplace within colonial run camps.
The government is trying to have the Kenyans’ case thrown out arguing that as so much time has passed between the events and legal action it would be impossible to have a fair trial. Many of those accused of committing crimes have passed on. They also say the Kenyans should have brought their case sooner.
“Without those witnesses, and indeed with the necessarily limited recollections of those who do survive, the very complicated and difficult task of determining the competing factual positions cannot be fairly conducted," argued Mr Mansfield. “There is a dearth of evidence which can be given as to what was in people's minds when they made decisions and sent or read telegrams or attended meetings or were told of matters or visited places.”
However the Kenyans’ legal team counter that the allegations of torture against British colonial forces are extensively backed up by multiple sources, including a vast trove of previously secret government documents that were made available last year. They argue that because the Mau Mau were a proscribed organisation in Kenya until 2003 they could not have brought their legal challenge any sooner. The case is expected to last two weeks.
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