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Britain to pay for colonial-era torture

By on June 7, 2013

Britain expressed regret on Thursday for the abuse of Kenyans by colonial forces during the 1950s Mau Mau insurgency and announced compensation for 5,228 survivors, but stopped short of apologizing.

The deal, settled out of court after three elderly Kenyan torture victims won the right in October to sue the British government, could encourage people in other former colonies to press claims over grievances dating back to the days of Empire.

“The British government recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” Foreign Secretary William Hague told parliament.

“The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place.”

The 5,228 claimants are due to receive 13.9 million pounds ($21.4 million), about 2,600 pounds each, or about 340,000 Kenyan shillings in a country where average annual income is some 70,000 shillings.

Lawyers representing the veterans will separately receive six million pounds in fees for years of work on the case.

London will also pay for a new memorial in Nairobi to the victims of torture and ill-treatment during the colonial era.

A British diplomat said Hague stopped short of offering a formal apology because that could be interpreted as the government accepting responsibility, which would have had legal implications.

Mau Mau veterans danced, prayed and ululated to celebrate news of the agreement at an event in Nairobi.

“This is confirmation we were freedom fighters and not terrorists. We have been waiting a long time to hear the British say ‘what we did in Kenya was wrong’,” said Gitu Wa Kahengeri, secretary general of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association.

He said the compensation was “not enough” but the veterans accepted the offer as they feared Britain could prolong the court battle for years, by which point it would be too late because some of the elderly men and women could be dead.

“Where will we be in 30 years?” Kahengeri asked around 100 veterans gathered in Nairobi. “A bird in the hand is better than 10 in the bush.”


The so-called Kenyan Emergency of 1952-1961 was one of the most violent episodes of British colonial rule in Africa.

Mau Mau rebels fighting for land and an end to British domination attacked British targets, causing panic among white settlers and alarming the government in London.

Tens of thousands of rebels were killed by colonial forces and their Kenyan allies, while an estimated 150,000 people, many of them unconnected to the Mau Mau, were detained in camps.

The compensation package is likely to be examined closely by others who complain of human rights abuses during British colonial times, although Hague said he believed it would not give extra force to their claims.

“We do not believe that this settlement establishes a precedent in relation to any other former colonial administration,” he said.

Claims concerning the conduct of the British in Malaysia and Cyprus have already emerged, and diplomats said they expected more to come, which would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

The three Kenyans who took the British government to court were all survivors of the Emergency detention camps.

The British government tried for three years to block the legal action by Paulo Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara, now in their 70s and 80s, but the High Court ruled in October that they had the right to sue for damages.

Nzili was castrated while in detention, Nyingi suffered severe beatings during the nine years for which he was held without charge, and Mara suffered sexual abuse including rape using a soda bottle full of boiling water.

“This is a story of a massive cover-up and 50 years later justice being done. I don’t know if there will be another case like this,” said Harvard professor Caroline Elkins, whose book ‘Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya’ served as the basis for the case.

In 2008, The Times newspaper reported that U.S. President Barack Obama’s Kenyan grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, had been imprisoned and tortured by the British during the Mau Mau uprising. It quoted his wife, Sarah Onyango, as saying he was whipped every day.

The report fueled speculation that Obama might have a cool relationship with Britain because of this, although a later biography of the president cast doubt on the account.


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