Britain’s Foreign Office said it would appeal a High Court judgement on Friday that three elderly Kenyans who were tortured under British rule in the 1950s could pursue their claim for damages from London.
“The judgement has potentially significant and far reaching legal implications,” it said in a statement.
“The normal time limit for bringing a civil action is 3 to 6 years. In this case, that period has been extended to over 50 years despite the fact that the key decision makers are dead and unable to give their account of what happened.”
The Foreign Office added that it did not dispute that each of the three claimants in the case suffered torture and other ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.
Lawyers for the claimants said Friday’s judgement would be carefully studied by victims of alleged colonial torture from Malaya to the Yemen from Cyprus to Palestine, as well as South Africa.
The claimants, Jane Muthoni Mara, Wambuga Wa Nyingi and Paulo Muoka Nzili celebrated the news in Nairobi, Kenya. They were represented by a white lawyer, Martyn Day.
London’s High Court ruled the case, relating to the 1950s Mau Mau uprising, could proceed despite the time elapsed.
The ruling means the case will now go to a full trial. Lawyers for the three hailed it as a “historic” judgement.
While the government accepts UK forces tortured detainees it denies liability and will appeal against the decision.
After the 2011 ruling, the case went back to the High Court in July to consider a claim by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) that the actions had been brought outside the legal time limit. The FCO said it faced “irredeemable difficulties” in relation to the availability of witnesses and documents.
As the news filtered through, several dozen elderly Kenyans erupted into cheers. They linked arms and danced through the grounds of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, which has been supporting the claimants.
For them, and other veterans of the Mau Mau struggle, today’s judgement was a significant victory.
But elsewhere in Kenya the case has received little attention. Only a handful of reporters from the Kenyan media turned up to cover the reaction from the veterans themselves.
There are historical reasons for this. Many of those who found themselves in power following independence in 1963 had previously been associated with the Home Guard: those who fought with the British colonial authorities against the Mau Mau rebels.
When independence came, many believed this chapter in Kenya’s recent history would sow division rather than foster unity. The elderly veterans of that struggle are still fighting for recognition, both at home and abroad.
In his ruling, the judge said: “A fair trial for the Kenyans on this part of the case does remain possible and the evidence on both sides does remain significantly cogent for the court to complete its task satisfactorily.”
A lawyer for the three said the claimants had not been in court because they were in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, but they were “absolutely delighted” when they learned of the result.
Martyn Day said lawyers would be pressing for a trial “as quickly as possible” but they would also be pushing for the government to reach an out-of-court settlement.
“This is a historic judgement which will reverberate around the world and will have repercussions for years to come,” he said in a separate statement.
“The British government has admitted that these three Kenyans were brutally tortured by the British colony and yet they have been hiding behind technical legal defences for three years in order to avoid any legal responsibility. This was always morally repugnant and today the judge has also rejected these arguments.”
He added: “Following this judgement we can but hope that our government will at last do the honourable thing and sit down and resolve these claims. There will undoubtedly be victims of colonial torture from Malaya to the Yemen, from Cyprus to Palestine, who will be reading this judgement with great care.”
Written evidence from the three Kenyans sheds light on their treatment at the hands of colonial forces:
- Mr Nyingi, 84, a father of 16, said he was arrested in 1952 and detained for about nine years. In one incident in 1959 he said he was beaten unconscious and still bears marks from leg manacles, whipping and caning. “I have brought this case because I want the world to know about the years I have lost and what was taken from a generation of Kenyans, he said
- Mr Nzili, 85, said he was stripped, chained and castrated shortly after being arrested in 1957. “I felt completely destroyed and without hope,” he said
- Ms Mara, 73, said she was 15 when she was raped at a detention camp. “I want the British citizens of today to know what their forefathers did to me and to so many others. These crimes cannot go unpunished and forgotten,” she said
A spokesman for the FCO said the judgement had “potentially significant and far-reaching legal implications”.
“The normal time limit for bringing a civil action is three to six years. In this case that period has been extended to over 50 years despite the fact that the key decision-makers are dead and unable to give their account of what happened,” the spokesman said.
“Since this is an important legal issue, we have taken the decision to appeal. In light of the legal proceedings it would not be appropriate for the government to comment any further on the detail of the case.”
The spokesman reiterated that the government did not dispute that each of the claimants suffered torture at the hands of colonial forces.
“We have always said that we understand the pain and grievance felt by those, on all sides, who were involved in the divisive and bloody events of the emergency period in Kenya, and it is right that those who feel they have a case are free to take it to the courts,” he said.