LONDON -- Britain's High Court ruled Friday that three elderly Kenyans tortured during a rebellion against British colonial rule can proceed with compensation claims against the British 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, although it stressed that 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 long-ago 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. It will appeal.
"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 Kenyans say the British were aware the Kenyans were being mistreated and demand 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. A fourth person, Ndiku Mutua, died before the case could be decided.
Some said they never got over watching their colleagues die.
Nyingi, 84, a laborer, was arrested on Christmas Eve in 1952 and detained for about nine years. He 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 burned 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."
Some 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.