by Ian Cobain in London and Clar Ni Chonghaile in Nairobi
The lawyer for three elderly Kenyans who were tortured during the Mau Mau uprising hails the ruling on Friday that allows them to sue the British government
Three elderly Kenyans have won an historic legal victory over the British government after the high court gave them permission to claim damages for the grave abuses they suffered when imprisoned during the Mau Mau rebellion.
The court rejected the government’s claim that too much time had elapsed for there to be a fair trial, just as it threw out an earlier claim that the Mau Mau veterans should be suing the Kenyan government, not the British.
The government’s lawyers accepted that all three were tortured by the colonial authorities. They suffered what their lawyers describe as “unspeakable acts of brutality”, including castration, beatings and severe sexual assaults.
After the ruling, the Foreign Office acknowledged it had “potentially significant and far reaching legal implications”, and said it was planning to appeal.
However, an estimated 2,000 other Kenyans – the survivors of more than 70,000 Mau Mau suspects who were imprisoned during the seven-year insurgency in the 1950s – are now expected to come forward to sue the British government.
Many more men and women around the world who were imprisoned and allegedly mistreated during the conflicts that often accompanied the British retreat from empire may also be considering claims. A number of veterans of the Eoka insurgency in Cyprus in the 1950s are known to have been watching the Mau Mau case closely.
Friday’s ruling came after a series of legal battles over more than three years. Paulo Muoka Nzili, 85, Wambugu Wa Nyingi, 84, and Jane Muthoni Mara, 73, were originally accompanied by a fourth claimant, Susan Ciong’ombe Ngondi, who died two years ago, aged 71.
Mr Justice McCombe said a fair trial was possible and highlighted the fact that thousands of documents had been found in a secret Foreign Office archive containing files from dozens of former colonies.
Last year the judge had said there was “ample evidence even in the few papers that I have seen suggesting that there may have been systematic torture of detainees during the Emergency”.
Martyn Day, of the veterans’ law firm Leigh Day, said: “This is a historic judgment which will reverberate around the world and will have repercussions for years to come. We can but hope that our government will at last do the honourable thing and sit down and resolve these claims.”
As the Mau Mau case progressed slowly though the high court in London, with the elderly Kenyan claimants and their lawyers facing one seemingly insuperable legal hurdle after another, many other people across the world were watching and wondering whether they too could bring a claim against the British government. Future claims are most likely to come from:
The International Committee of the Red Cross documented hundreds of cases of torture during the 1950s Eoka insurgency. One Red Cross inspector said he had seen broken fingers and limbs, missing fingernails and traces of whip marks. Some prisoners complained they were waterboarded, with kerosene mixed with water. “The British policy is to break the back of Eoka by any means,” the inspector told his superiors in Geneva.
After Amnesty International’s first-ever investigation concluded that British forces were torturing prisoners in the mid-1960s, an official investigation was mounted. Some of the documentation from this investigation was destroyed, but a few papers survived and have since been declassified. They show that the torture of suspected insurgents continued despite the official investigation, ending only with the British withdrawal in 1967.
Families of 24 rubber plantation workers who were massacred by British troops in 1948 are seeking a public inquiry. There have also been allegations of torture and extrajudicial killing during the 12-year war against communist guerrillas in Malaya, while a former head of Special Branch in the country has said the British conducted highly secret drug experiments on prisoners.
The news from London was relayed from a mobile phone and suddenly the men and women who had been sitting silently in the meagre shade around a sun-scorched garden in Nairobi erupted: hugging, cheering, clapping, dancing and eventually raising their hands to the sky and praying.
These veterans of Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising had been waiting for hours for a ruling that vindicated their right to claim damages for the torture and abuses carried out by British colonial authorities.
“I am very, very happy,” said Wambugu Wa Nyingi, one of three claimants in the case. The UK government “has done justice because it is a just government,” he said, speaking in the Kikuyu language and leaning on a wooden stick.
In his written evidence, Nyingi, 85, said he was arrested in 1952 and detained for about nine years. He was beaten unconscious and still bears the marks from leg manacles, whipping and caning.
“I just wanted the truth to be out. Even the children of my children should know what happened,” he said. “What should happen is that people should be compensated so they can begin to forgive the British government.”
The three claimants suffered what their lawyers describe as “unspeakable acts of brutality”, including castration, beatings and severe sexual assaults.
Jane Muthoni Mara, another claimant, clapped and cheered as the ruling was relayed. She hoped the British government would compensate the veterans.
“I’m very happy and my heart is clean,” she said. Asked what she would tell her four children, she said simply: “I will tell them I won.”
In her statement to the court, Mara, who is from the Kirinyaga district in central Kenya, said she was 15 when she was detained and beaten with sticks and a gun butt and had her legs stamped on. She was also sexually assaulted.
“My life was destroyed because I now live in a township and I don’t have a farm of my own,” she said.
“I am so proud of these old people,” said Atsango Chesoni, the executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC). “These people are the ones who allowed us to live, to go to school.”
She said she did not know how many other claimants would come forward.
“What we would like is a situation where the British just acknowledge that this happened, apologise and provide some form of compensation so that these people can live out their lives in some form of comfort,” she said.
After the ruling was announced, men in suits, straw hats or turbans, many brandishing traditional fly-whisks, and women in headscarves and colourful dresses danced around the garden behind the headquarters of the KHRC.
Professor Henry Stanley Kabeca, a historian, stood watching the celebrations. He said he was a strong supporter of the Mau Mau.
“I feel delighted, completely vindicated. I got a bit demoralised in 1956 when our people surrendered from the forest as a defeated force. We only lost the battle, we won the war, and today is the climax of a long struggle.”
The ruling also marks a kind of catharsis for Kenya, where the history of the Mau Mau movement has always been controversial. After independence in 1963, the country’s first two presidents tried to downplay the group’s role in the struggle against the British.
Kenya’s most numerous ethnic group, the Kikuyu, was split between those who joined the insurgency, and so-called “loyalists” who sided with the British.
“It lays the foundation for us to confront the ghosts of the past in a candid way,” said George Morara, senior programmes officer at the KHRC.
“For the veterans, it’s been a long journey. Mandela said he took the long walk to freedom for 27 years. These guys have taken 50 years. It’s been a much longer walk to freedom. So you can understand the sheer sense of jubilation. It’s been a landmark ruling,” he said.
Morara said the KHRC was travelling around the country interviewing thousands of people to determine who else might be eligible for eventual compensation. A legal ban on the Mau Mau was only lifted in 2003.
Charles Ngare, a member of the Mau Mau veterans’ association, raised his hands above his head as a bearded man with a fly-whisk decorated in the Kenyan colours led a group prayer.
The veterans “feel born again. They feel so happy in their spirits,” he said. “This will make their spirits walk.” courtesy: The Guardian