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It's time to acknowledge the victims of colonial-era torture in Kenya

The coalition must practice what it preaches on human rights.

Elizabeth Wamaitha, who was detained in a British-run labor camp for three years
Elizabeth Wamaitha, who was detained in a British-run labor camp for three years with her baby. Photograph: Getty Images

The coalition government claims to have placed human rights at the heart of its foreign policy. Next month, in the High Court, it will be asked to practice what it preaches by three elderly Kenyans.

The Kenyans will travel 4,000 miles to London in what is amounting to a seemingly endless struggle to get the government to acknowledge the tortures they were subjected at the hands of British officials in the run up to independence. They are men and women who are now in their 70s and 80s, who began their fight for redress back in 2009. 

These victims represent the wider community of several hundred elderly Kenyans who were subjected to unspeakable abuses while they were detained during the “Mau Mau rebellion”. They seek above all recognition of the abuses they suffered, but many have died while waiting for this case to wind its way through the courts, including some of the original claimants in the case.  Significantly their claims are being supported by both the Kenya Human Rights Commission and the Kenyan government.

The full truth of what occurred during the Kenya Emergency has only recently emerged due to exhaustive research conducted by historians from Oxford and Harvard, which revealed facts which are scandalous by any standard.

The Mau Mau rebellion was itself brutal but the colonial response was no less vicious. Between 1954 and 1955 over a million Kenyans were rounded up into 800 barded-wire villages where they were guarded and their movement controlled. Many thousands who had little or no connection with the Mau Mau were detained without trial for years in a labyrinth of 150 detention camps littered around Kenya known as “the Pipeline”. Among their number was Onyango Obama, Barak Obama’s grandfather.

From the start, the detention camps were places of violence and torture. Detainees were subjected to arbitrary killings, castrations and sexual assaults. Camp guards engaged in daily beatings, often resulting in serious injury or death. The worst forms of abuse and torture were routinely deployed during interrogations.

The systematic nature of the abuse and the extent to which it was known about and ultimately sanctioned at the highest level of government is what has been uncovered by recent historical scholarship, placing responsibility at the heart of Whitehall.

The three leading academic experts on the Kenya Emergency from the universities of Oxford, Harvard and London have all submitted multiple lengthy statements in support of the victims.  By contrast, not one expert has come forward to support the British government’s position.

The case has also lead to the “discovery” of the remarkable Hanslope archive, which contains tens of thousands of previously unseen documents from 37 different colonies which an internal report labelled the FCO’s “guilty secret”. These documents are now slowly being put into the public domain and provide a highly detailed account of the unfolding drama in pre-independence Kenya.

The government initially argued that they cannot be held liable for the sins of the Kenyan colony and if anyone was liable it was the Kenyan government. In July 2011 the High Court judge flatly rejected the government’s argument and stated that there was “substantial” evidence in support of the victims’ case:

The materials evidencing the continuing abuses in the detention camps in subsequent years are substantial, as is the evidence of the knowledge of both governments that they were happening and of the failure to take effective action to stop them. (Paragraph 128)

And yet, in July 2012, the government will seek to rely on a further technicality, this time by arguing that the claims are out of time and should have been brought years ago (even though they were sitting on many of the documents which have enabled experts to piece together the truth of what happened).  

Leading figures from Africa such as Desmond Tutu and Graça Machel and senior British politicians (including two current cabinet ministers, Vince Cable and Ed Davey) have called on the government to deal with these elderly Kenyans with the dignity they deserve. The previous government was on the verge of finding a solution to this issue just before the last election and yet there is no sign that William Hague is willing to do the same and it may be that the he will be dragged kicking and screaming by the judiciary into acknowledging the suffering of these elderly victims of torture.