A London high court ruled Friday that three Kenyans tortured during a colonial rebellion can proceed with their case against the British government, more than half a century after the abuses.
The case has divided Britain over how it should reckon with its colonial past, with critics fearful that the decision opens the door to a flood of new lawsuits over crimes committed decades ago.
The Kenya Human Rights Commission heralded the Friday court decision as “a momentous victory,” saying the elderly torture survivors were overjoyed. The three were photographed clapping and smiling outside its offices as the decision was announced. Martyn Day, senior partner at the London law firm representing the Kenyan plaintiffs, called it “a historic judgment that will reverberate around the world.”
The British Foreign Office said it was disappointed and would appeal the decision, concerned that the court had vastly extended the normal time limit of three to six years to bring such a case. Key decision makers are now dead and unable to give their account of what happened, it said.
“We do not dispute that each of the claimants in this case suffered torture and other ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” the office said in a Friday statement. However, allowing the case to move forward could have “potentially significant and far-reaching legal implications."
Day agreed about the significance of the case. “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,” he said. Britain could also face thousands of claims from other Kenyans who suffered similar torture, his law firm said.
The Kenyan plaintiffs say they were tortured during the British crackdown on the armed Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule in the 1950s. In her testimony, one of the plaintiffs described being whipped and sexually violated with a glass bottle at a detention camp.
A recently released cache of British colonial documents document a long list of abuses including Kenyan detainees being summarily executed or roasted alive. The Mau Mau insurgency was quashed; Kenya gained its independence a few years later in 1963.
Britain had earlier argued that the case had become the responsibility of Kenya after its independence, an argument that a British court rejected last year, saying the three elderly Kenyans had a valid case.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Seated left to right, Kenyans Jane Muthoni Mara, Wambuga Wa Nyingi and Paulo Muoka Nzili celebrate in Nairobi after the announcement of a legal decision in their case at Britain's High Court on Friday. Credit: Ben Curtis / Associated Press