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Potential for further payouts after landmark Mau Mau case

JUSTICE: The Kenyans who are taking The British government to court, with left-right; Wambugu Wa Nyingi, Jane Muthoni Mara, Paulo Nzili and Ndiku Mutua, stand outside the Royal Courts of Justice, in central London, Thursday, April 7, 2011 (PA)

THANKS TO the British government seeking to financially settle with Kenyans abused under colonial rule for their part in resisting the crown, further claims could be brought against today’s authorities for past crimes of torture.

The case of the Mau Mau war veterans, who in the 1950s operated armed resistance against British military forces aiming to subject the indigenous population to white rule in the East African country, has the potential to expose the government to more retrospective colonial power legal claims.

The taxpayer would be liable to foot the bill.

The government and the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) is currently in legal talks to compensate thousands of elderly former Mau Mau freedom fighters (or insurgents, depending on perspective) who were systemically abused, tortured and beaten while being held prisoner by British authorities.

One of the claimants, Wambugu Wa Nyingi, gave evidence last year at the high court, central London, about how his British captors treated him upon being detained on Christmas Eve 1952.

Nyingi, held for nine years and for much of the time shackled, told the court: “I feel I was robbed of my youth and that I did not get to do the things I should have done as a young man.

“There is a saying in Kikuyu that old age lives off the years of youth, but I have nothing to live off because my youth was taken from me.”

The FCO originally denied the existence of documents that proved authorities had officially orchestrated such brutal treatment of its prisoners that contravened the Geneva Conventions, which stipulate the humane treatment of persons rendered non-active in warfare by capture from the opposing force.

Eventually, the FCO buckled under pressure from lawyers representing the Kenyans demanding to access the documents, which expose the reality how the British left its former colonies.

The damning documents have been kept secret and well guarded in Buckinghamshire for decades in Hanslope Park, a facility protected by high fences and barbed wire that is home to Her Majesty’s Government Communications Centre.

The hidden papers vaulted away, include conclusive proof through correspondence that high-placed figures within the colonial hierarchy knew and approved of torture.


SEARCH AND CAPTURE: Troops of the 3rd Battalion King's African Rifles on patrol in the Imenti Forest on the slopes of Mount. Kenya on June 7, 1961 where they are searching for the Mau Mau leader General Acholi (PA)

In order for torturous techniques to remain palatable, detainees should be beaten across their upper body, wrote Eric Griffiths-Jones the then attorney general of the administration in Kenya, to the colony’s governor, Sir Evelyn Baring.

“[V]ulnerable parts of the body should not be struck, particularly the spleen, liver or kidneys,” wrote the judge, adding that “those who administer violence… should remain collected, balanced and dispassionate”.

Griffiths-Jones also prophesied the FCO’s future secretive policy in his letter with the lines: “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.”

Historians and lawyers believe legally strong claims could be advanced by others who survived conflicts with the empire, including peoples in Yemen, Swaziland, Guyana and Cyprus.

There is persuasive evidence which supports claimants alleging they were tortured under British rule.

Archived documents from the International Committee of the Red Cross illustrate that its inspectors found systemic practices of torture throughout certain British prisoner camps, particularly in Cyprus, with detainees being waterboarded, along with the introduction of kerosene into the water.

The Hanslope Park facility is said to hold 8,000 files concerning 37 former colonies and protectorates.

The forced revelation of the archives meant FCO lawyers had to concede the Kenyan claimants’ testimonies were true, but then argued too much time had elapsed for any compensation to be paid out.

Such an argument was rejected by the high court judge, who said: “The documentation is voluminous. And the governments and military commanders seem to have been meticulous record keepers.”

Aware that the Mau Mau case has the potential to inundate government with more claims, the FCO said it would appeal against any high court judgment in favour of the Kenyans, saying it had “potentially significant and far-reaching legal implications”.

Furthermore, there has also been international pressure on the government to act by meeting the victims’ demands.

“In our view the response of the British government to vulnerable and elderly victims of [acknowledged] British torture is shameful,” Juan Mendez, the UN’s special rapporteur on torture, wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron.

The FCO’s response, international observers have warned, risks jeopardising Britain’s moral authority.

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