NAIROBI, KENYA — A British High Court ruling that colonial atrocities in Kenya are not bound by a time limit has a legal precedent.
British High Court Justice Richard McCombe ruled last Friday that Britain's Foreign Office must face a lawsuit filed by Kenyans who were tortured during the final days of British colonial rule.
Veterans from Kenya’s Mau Mau anti-colonial movement gathered Friday in Nairobi to await the High Court’s decision. George Morara, the program officer at the Kenya Human Rights Commission in charge of the case, received the call from London.
“We have won our case,” he told the crowd in Swahili.
Detentions and torture
Historians estimate 150,000 suspected Mau Mau fighters and their supporters were detained during Kenya’s so-called "emergency" period. Many of them suffered acts of torture at the hands of colonial authorities.
Paolo Nzili - one of the claimants in today’s case, who joined the Mau Mau movement at the age of 27 - told his story through a translator.
"While in Nairobi we were picked up by a group of freedom fighters. They gave us arms, we fought in that forest until we were attacked one day and then we were dispersed in the forest," he said.
He was discovered by colonial authorities and promptly arrested.
"I was arrested holding the gun. I was taken to Kwaluvai, and that is where I was destroyed, in other words, I was castrated," said Nzili.
Door now open for suits
Because of Friday’s ruling, Nzili, now 85 years old, has the right to sue the British government for the abuses he suffered more than 50 years ago.
During the three-year legal battle, lawyers representing the foreign office argued that too much time had passed to hold a fair trial.
Morara explained the foreign office’s defense.
"Most of those people who would have come before the court to give evidence have died and the ones who are still alive have a poor recollection of those events, and therefore it’s not possible to give a fair trial," he said was the other side's reasoning.
Justice Richard McCombe rejected this claim, highlighting that recently declassified colonial archives contain ample evidence to proceed to full trial.
The Mau Mau are asking for reparations and a formal apology. Gitu wa Kahengeri, the spokesperson for the Mau Mau War Veterans Association, explained.
"We are looking for compensation for all of the people whose lives they have destroyed," he said. "We are also looking for them to come out and apologize to the people of Kenya and, of course, to the people of the world because what they did here is completely inhuman."
Colonial-era abuses targeted
Kahengeri believes this case has set a precedent.
"If they did atrocities to the people of other countries as well, this is an atrocity against human beings, therefore, they must pay for that. That is my belief,” he said.
Claims of abuse under colonial rule are now emerging from many of Britain's former colonies, from Cyprus to Guyana.
In Malaysia, the relatives of 24 villagers killed in 1948 during an alleged massacre at Batang Kali are seeking a public inquiry and compensation.
The archive discovered by historians researching the Mau Mau uprising contains documents from several other former British colonies.