LONDON (AP) — The High Court ruled Friday that three elderly Kenyans tortured during a rebellion against British colonial rule can proceed with compensation claims against the U.K. government — a case with potentially broad implications for thousands of others who claim similar abuse.
The case involves Kenyans who say they were beaten and sexually assaulted by officers acting for the British administration trying to suppress the "Mau Mau" rebellion in the 1950s. Groups of Kenyans had attacked British officials and white farmers who had settled in some of Kenya's most fertile lands.
The British government expressed disappointment with the decision and said it would appeal. But it did "not dispute that each of the claimants in this case suffered torture and other ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration."
The government had sought to have the case dismissed, arguing it could not be held legally responsible for the abuses. It had argued that the liabilities of the colonial administration passed onto the Kenyan government upon the country's independence from Britain in 1963.
"The normal time limit for bringing a civil action is three to six years," the Foreign Office said in a statement. "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 book "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya" helped prompt the legal action. The author, Caroline Elkins, called Friday's ruling "seismic" and said Britain will now have to answer for injustices in all its former colonies.
"For the Kenyan victims of British colonial torture, it acknowledges their unimaginable sufferings and validates their humanity. It also serves as a reminder to all governments that regardless of how much time has passed, they can and will be held accountable," she said by email. "Today's ruling is a victory not only for the Mau Mau claimants, but for victims of colonial torture throughout the former British Empire."
The Kenyans say the British were aware the Kenyans were being mistreated and demanding compensation. Wambugu Wa Nyingi, Paulo Muoka Nzili and Jane Muthoni Mara submitted written evidence that described horrific abuse at the hands of the colonial authorities.
In Kenya, when news of the judgment broke, about 100 elderly men and women involved in the Mau Mau struggle against the British broke into song and dance.
Nyingi, an 85-year-old claimant in the case, said he is happy with the way the case is proceeding. Nyingi said he was detained and tortured for 10 years.
"It spoiled my prime years. My body still doesn't feel right from all the beatings," he said. "I was unable to produce in my youthful years and even educate my children to the level where they would be self-sufficient. I now live in squalor and that's why I am asking the British what can they do for me so I can live a normal life."
George Morara, an official with the Kenya Human Rights Commission, which helped compile testimony, said the group has been receiving overtures from Britain to settle the case out of court.
Some said they never got over watching their colleagues die.
Nyingi, a laborer said he still bears marks from leg manacles and has had nightmares about beatings.
"If I could speak to the queen, I would say that Britain did many good things in Kenya, but that they also did many bad things," he said. "The settlers took our land, they killed our people and they burnt down our houses ... I do not hold her personally responsible, but I would like the wrongs which were done to me and other Kenyans to be recognized by the British government so that I can die in peace."
The case could be problematic for Britain, which fears similar claims of citizens of other former colonies who also hold grievances over the way they were treated under British rule. A lawyer for the Kenyans suggested that the British government could potentially face thousands of claims from Kenyans who suffered similar torture.
"This is an historic judgment which will reverberate around the world and will have repercussions for years to come," attorney Martyn Day said. "Following this judgment, we can but hope that our government will at last do the honorable thing and sit down and resolve these claims."
Day suggested that victims of torture in other corners of the British empire would be looking at the judgment "with great care."
Around 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed during the crackdown against the Mau Mau, the Kenya Human Rights Commission has said.
Among those detained was President Barack Obama's grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama.
Associated Press reporters Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Tom Odula in Nairobi, Kenya contributed to this report.