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Kenyans take Britain to court over colonial-era torture

July 17, 2012 | 10:40 am


Nearly half a century after Kenya won its independence, three elderly Kenyans who say they were tortured at the hands of the British during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s are seeking justice in a London courtroom, rekindling debate over how Britain should reckon with its colonial past.

The British government admitted Tuesday in court that the three Kenyans had suffered torture and other abuse under British rule in what attorneys believe to be the first official government acknowledgment of colonial-era abuses, the BBC reported. But British officials argue that too much time has passed to hold a fair trial, with many of its possible witnesses now dead.

That argument has drawn uproar from Kenyan activists and retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who have accused Britain of stalling and relying on legal technicalities to avoid responsibility for abuses.

"We find it morally reprehensible for the British government to continue waging a war of attrition against Mau Mau torture survivors, most of whom are quite advanced in age, and who need to see justice in this case done sooner than later," Muthoni Wanyeki of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission said last year.

The historic trial has split the British over whether justice can or should be served now. In a fiery column for the Daily Mail, historian Max Hastings wrote that although there was no doubt that the British acted ruthlessly in Kenya to suppress rebellion, the trial was a spectacle and a waste of taxpayer money.

"If the former Mau Mau plaintiffs win their case at the High Court and receive a truckload of cash, this will open the way for thousands more claimants from every corner of the old Empire," he argued.

The Kenyans and their attorney argue that a newly released stash of colonial documents detailing how the British abused detainees during the Mau Mau rebellion offers ample evidence to allow a trial. The papers reveal disturbing stories of Kenyan prisoners being raped, summarily executed and even roasted alive.

"This is not a case where there is a dearth of evidence," attorney Richard Hermer said in court,  according to the Independent. "This is a case where there is an extraordinary amount of evidence."

One of the Kenyan plaintiffs, Jane Muthoni Mara, has testified she was arrested at age 15 after organizing women in her village to cook food and wash clothes for Mau Mau fighters, then sent to a detention camp where she was whipped, beaten and sexually violated with a glass soda bottle.

"I was in so much pain and I could not stop crying and screaming," Mara said in a witness statement. "I felt completely and utterly violated by this sexual torture, but I continued to insist that I had not taken an oath" to back the Mau Mau.

The other two plaintiffs allege they were tortured, one castrated, the other severely beaten, according to British media. Another died before the case came to court; the suit was filed three years ago.


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Photo: Kenyan nationals Wambugu wa Nyingi, left, Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili and Jane Muthoni Mara  hold protest outside the High Court in central London in April 2011. Mutua died before their trial began Monday. Credit: Carl Court / Agence France-Presse/Getty Images