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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.

By Correspondent / October 5, 2012

Seated left to right, Kenyans Jane Muthoni Mara, Wambuga Wa Nyingi, and Paulo Muoka Nzili, celebrate the announcement of a legal decision in their case at Britain's High Court concerning Mau Mau veterans, at the offices of the Kenya Human Rights Commission in Nairobi, Kenya Friday, Oct. 5.

Ben Curtis/AP

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NAIROBI, Kenya

A historic legal ruling in London today could leave Britain’s government facing dozens of new court cases alleging systematic torture by the officers of its former empire dating back decades.

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Three elderly Kenyans who say Britain’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 Britain’s 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.

“It’s a seismic ruling, with implications in multiple other former British colonial territories,” says Caroline Elkins, a Harvard University professor and author of “Imperial Reckoning,” a study of Britain’s conduct during its imperial administration in Kenya.

“This case didn’t come out of thin air. There are other colonial theaters – Palestine, Northern Ireland, Malaya, Aden, Cyprus – where a very similar kind of systematic brutality and violence played out,” Ms. Elkins says.

“The High Court has stated that, even 50 years later, governments can be held accountable for their actions. While it does not say that they will be, or what the outcome will be, it opens the door for these other cases to start too,” Elkins says.

In his ruling today, Justice Richard McCombe said there was enough potential evidence in Britain’s imperial archives available to both prosecution and defense to permit legal action to move forward.

“The documentation is voluminous … the governments and military commanders seem to have been meticulous record keepers,” Justice McCombe said when reading the ruling aloud in court.

“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,” McCombe  said.

Assaulted and detained

The three claimants involved in yesterday’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 rural 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.

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