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Britain’s Kenyan colonial legacy goes on trial

Fifty years after Kenya's independence, the British high court opened the second part of a case brought by three Kenyan nationals against the British government today. The trial sheds light on Kenya's gulags, a largely forgotten dark corner of England's colonial legacy.

The plaintiffs -- Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambuga Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara -- were formerly rebels during the Mau Mau uprising against colonial rule.  They allege that they were the victims of torture and brutality at the hands of the British administration during the "Kenya Emergency" that lasted from 1952-1960.

According to the BBC, the "claimants' lawyers allege that Nzili was castrated, Nyingi severely beaten and Mara subjected to appalling sexual abuse in detention camps during the rebellion."

The fourth claimant in the original case, Ndiku Mutwiwa Mutua, died in the interim between when the test case was ruled arguable in July 2011 and the opening of the trial.

The lawyers for the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) have argued that the case should be struck down because the lapse in time between the end of the insurgency and the current proceedings is too great. However, a new cache of secret British documents unveiled in April 2012 has shed new light on crimescommitted in Kenya, as well as other former colonies -- and the decades-long effort to cover them up.   

The files - which had been purposely withheld from the National Archives and illegally hidden at Hanslope Park, an intelligence station -- were uncovered by historians working on the Kenyans' case.  Subsequently, the Foreign Office released all of the records.

The documents include accounts of British officials "roasting detainees alive" in Kenya. The colony's attorney general in 1953, Eric Griffith-Jones, described the internment camps as "distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia" -- yet nevertheless endorsed British policy, claiming that "if we are going to sin, we must sin quietly."

The Kenyans first requested the release of these documents in 1967, according to an internal FCO review from February 2011 that was made public in May.  The review, which explains how the Kenyan request served as a blueprint for refusing such information to all former colonies, details that the files were consciously concealed by the government. They reasoned that releasing any information would set "a dangerous precedent" which would make it "difficult to withhold un-reviewed and potentially sensitive papers from other former colonies."

The Guardian confirmed that the most incriminating of the documents were systematically destroyed. Nevertheless, the remaining incriminating files -- known within the FCO as the 'migrated archives' because they were whisked out of colonial territories before the post-independence administration could take power - total 8,800 files. The Kenyan documents alone total 294 boxes.

As the trial progresses, government fears of "a dangerous precedent" may prove well-founded: this case might very well open up avenues for other colonies to bring legal cases against the former empire.  

SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images

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