LONDON (Reuters) - Three elderly Kenyans who were tortured in detention under British orders in the 1950s took the witness stand in London’s High Court on Tuesday in poignant scenes that conjured up the darkest days of the end of empire.
They are seeking damages from the British government, which has been trying for three years to block their legal action for fear that it could encourage countless other former colonial subjects to come forward with similar claims.
The claimants, now in their 70s and 80s, suffered acts of brutality including castration, rape and beatings during a ruthless crackdown by British forces and their Kenyan allies on rebels from the Mau Mau movement fighting for land and freedom.
One of the three to take the stand was Paulo Nzili, 85. In his 20-page witness statement, he gave excruciating details of how he was castrated at Embakasi detention camp by a white settler called Mr. Dunman and nicknamed “Luvai” which in Nzili’s Kikamba language means “Merciless person”.
“They tied both of my legs with chains and ... pinned down both my hands. Then Luvai approached me with a pair of pliers which were more than a foot long and castrated me,” he said in the statement, which was based on his oral account.
Nzili wore a leather jacket and flat cap and used a walking stick. He had difficulty hearing the questions translated by his interpreter.
He was not asked to revisit his abuse on the stand, but to confirm he had recounted his story to the people who drew up the statement, and to confirm he had signed it, which he did.
Jane Muthoni Mara, 73, confirmed the thumb print on her witness statement was her own. The document makes horrifying reading, with details of sexual abuse including rape using a bottle full of boiling water.
Dressed in a skirt and cardigan, both with colorful patterns, and a red-and-yellow headscarf, Mara spoke so softly that the judge politely asked her to speak up.
Tens of thousands of rebels were killed during the British crackdown and about 150,000 Kenyans, many of them unconnected to the Mau Mau, were detained in brutal camps referred to as “Britain’s Gulag” by Harvard historian Caroline Elkins.
The first claimant to take the stand on Tuesday was Wambugu Wa Nyingi, 84, who was arrested in 1952 and spent almost a decade in detention at various camps run by the British and staffed jointly by British guards and Kenyan “loyalists”.
In his statement, Nyingi described severe beatings as a routine part of life in the camps. Tall and frail, he wore a suit and tie and a flat cap and used a walking stick. He was helped to the witness stand by his interpreter.
He answered questions from Guy Mansfield, the government’s counsel, who focused on two topics: the fact that some perpetrators of abuse were Kenyans, and that after independence successive Kenyan leaders were hostile to Mau Mau veterans.
Nyingi became animated in discussing the issue of how Kenya’s first two presidents, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi, had oppressed veterans of the armed struggle for independence.
“We were not allowed to meet in public. We were still in prison ... because we were not allowed to talk freely,” he said, jabbing his fingers on the stand for emphasis.
He said he and his fellow veterans had been “set free” by President Mwai Kibaki, who took office in 2002 and removed the legal ban on the Mau Mau in 2003.
His evidence was a stark reminder of how divisive the Mau Mau movement remains in Kenyan society.
Tuesday was the second day of a 10-day hearing. The court is not being asked to make a ruling on the substance of the Kenyans’ allegations but to decide whether a fair trial can be held so long after the events.
The British government’s position is that the case was filed too long after the time limit for making a claim. The claimants’ lawyers argue that as there is a mass of documentary and other evidence on the period, a fair trial is possible.
“The defendant (the government) does not dispute that each of the claimants suffered torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration,” Mansfield said in court.
The government has used legal arguments to try and stop their claim. That strategy has been denounced by South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has accused Britain of hypocrisy for criticizing the human rights record of other countries while refusing to face up to its own.
Editing by Pravin Char
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