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Colonial sins return to haunt former world powers

British police examine suspects for the seven initiation cuts on the body that marked a member of the Mau Mau secret society in this November 1952 image.
British police examine suspects for the seven initiation cuts on the body that marked a member of the Mau Mau secret society in this November 1952 image.Express Newspapers / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

LONDON — It is a court case that could reverberate round the world: Three elderly Kenyans are suing the U.K. government for torture inflicted by the colonial regime during the African country's struggle for independence.

If the Kenyans win — a ruling on the case is expected later this week — claims from others involved in the so-called Mau Mau uprising are highly likely and experts say it could set a precedent that would help victims of abuses in other countries that were once part of the British Empire. 

The court case could also attract the attention of President Barack Obama. In his book “Dreams From My Father,” Obama said he was told by his step-grandmother Sarah that his Kenyan grandfather Onyango was held for six months in a detention camp by the colonial authorities. “When he returned … he was very thin and dirty. He had difficulty walking, and his head was full of lice,” Obama wrote.


Compared to his compatriots seeking compensation from the U.K., Onyango Obama got off lightly: In court, the two men and a woman described being savagely beaten, castrated, sexually assaulted, and witnessing killings during British rule in the 1950s.

Such stories are not confined to the former British Empire.

France, for example, has refused to apologize for its actions as former colony Algeria struggled for independence in the 1950s and early 1960s, with former president Nicolas Sarkozy saying “repentance” had “no place in our relations.”

And Germany only finally said sorry for a particularly extreme case of genocide by German forces in Namibia on the 100th anniversary of the massacre of tens of thousands of Herero people. Germany does pay aid to Namibia, but has to date refused to compensate the Herero directly.

The United States also has a colonial past with Spain handing over Philippines in 1898. Some, as noted by Filipino academic E. San Juan Jr., say the resulting Philippine-American War saw the deaths of about 1.4 million Filipinos while others put the toll in the hundreds of thousands. Despite this, Philippines and the U.S. have close relations and many Filipinos have positive feelings toward Americans.

More international coverage from NBC News

In contrast, ill will still exists in Kenya over British colonial rule, but in July, there was a potential breakthrough when the U.K. government admitted for the first time that civilians were tortured during the Mau Mau revolt.

Guy Mansfield, a lawyer representing Britain, told the three Kenyan claimants — Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambuga Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara – that he did "not want to dispute the fact that terrible things happened to you.”

However, the U.K. is still arguing that the events of the uprising took place too long ago to enable a fair trial to be held. The defense team expects a judge to rule on this argument this week. A decision against the government would leave it with few legal options. 

'Children were killed'
Previously the U.K. claimed that the victims should sue Kenya, rather than the U.K., an argument the Kenyans’ lawyer, Martyn Day, dismissed as "nonsense" and that was rejected by a judge in a previous ruling. 

In July, Nyingi, 84, told the U.K.’s High Court through an interpreter that he was detained for nine years during which he was beaten unconscious as 11 others were battered to death, according to a report by the Press Association news service.

A lawyer representing the U.K. government told Wambuga Wa Nyingi and two other Kenyans that he did
A lawyer representing the U.K. government told Wambuga Wa Nyingi and two other Kenyans that he didBen Stansall / AFP - Getty Images, file

"In the years before independence people were beaten, their land was stolen, women were raped, men were castrated and their children were killed,” Nyingi  said.

Nzili, 85, said he was abducted by Mau Mau fighters, but later escaped only to be arrested by the colonial authorities, who castrated him. His treatment left him “completely destroyed and without hope.”

Mara, 73, told the court she was beaten with sticks and sexually assaulted with a glass bottle containing hot water after she gave food to Mau Mau members.

Day, the lawyer, told that “without any question … the [U.K.] government is very worried about the implications of any decision” in the case.

From ITV News: Tutu urges UK to show compassion to Kenyan torture victims

In addition to “many, many more people in Kenya,” he said he thought “significant numbers of groups of people the former British Empire who would be looking at that judgment.”

He said a victory for the Kenyans could help the victims of abuses in countries like Malaysia — the source of recent legal action against the U.K. -- Cyprus and possibly India claim compensation.

Day said some people in Britain “feel perhaps we are superior to the Germans and Japanese and countries where atrocities have occurred, but actually there is always a significant proportion of people who are pretty grim.”

France’s ‘horrific crimes’
The years leading up to independence for Algeria saw one of the world’s most violent and bitter conflicts to end colonial rule, which was the subject of a critically acclaimed film, “Battle of Algiers.” 

So much so, that when Algeria celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence on July 5 this year, France was pointedly not invited.

During the 1954-1962 revolt, a million lives were lost and people were murdered, raped and tortured by both sides; the newly independent Algeria was left economically devastated.

“The horrific crimes committed by the French during colonization are entrenched in the memories of Algerians,” explained Farouk Ksentini, president of Algeria’s National Commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. “We suffered like animals from humiliation, exploitation, expropriation and slaughter … France must repent for its crimes.”

French security forces take to the streets after a riot broke out in Algiers, Algeria, in 1960.
French security forces take to the streets after a riot broke out in Algiers, Algeria, in 1960.Dominique Berretty / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Ksentini said he was aware of only one Algerian who had been financially compensated by France over the conflict. In 2001, a French court awarded an invalidity pension to Mohamed Garne, conceived after French soldiers raped his mother.

To date, no French president has said sorry. During an official visit in 2007, Sarkozy told two Algerian newspapers he was in favor of “a recognition of the facts, [but] not for repentance which has a religious notion and no place in our relations state-to-state.”

The current President Francois Hollande may shift French policy; during his election campaign last year, he condemned colonization and declared, “The truth must be said.”

German extermination order
In Namibia in 1904, German General Adrian von Trotha gave an infamous order that “the Herero nation must now leave the country. If it refuses, I shall compel it to do so with the 'long tube' [cannon]. Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children."

A group of starving Herero survivors return after being driven into the desert of Omaheke by German forces in Namibia in about 1907.
A group of starving Herero survivors return after being driven into the desert of Omaheke by German forces in Namibia in about 1907.Fotosearch via Getty Images

The order was issued after a number of Herero rebelled and killed more than 100 German soldiers. There are different figures, but according to one estimate more than 60,000 people -- a significant proportion of the population that some put as high as 85 percent -- were dead within three years and thousands of Demara and Nama people were also killed.

Germany's return of Namibian skulls stokes anger

In 2004, Germany issued a formal apology. It also makes aid payments to Namibia, but has not directly paid compensation to the Herero.

Kuaima Riruaku, the paramount chief of the Herero and a politician in Namibia’s parliament, told NBC News that his people were still feeling the effects of the massacre.

“They destroyed the Herero as a people. They destroyed the culture and the manhood,” he said.

“We’ve lost a lot of things, our land and our property … our cattle and everything that was confiscated by the German government,” he said.

“Now we’re in the minority [in the Herero’s homeland]. We [would have been] the majority here if we didn’t fight the Germans,” he added.

Riruaku said for years Germany had ignored the Herero’s request for reparations.

“It’s taken more than 25 to 30 years, but now they seem to listen … there’s a little chance of hope,” he said. “Now we just talk to one another as human to human … they seem to understand why we are doing this.”

He said Germany should reach a financial settlement with the Herero “in order to … restore their humanity.”

Asked whether too much time had passed for such a deal, Riruaku said “that was the argument before … but the wound and the scar … are not yet forgotten.”

A spokeswoman for the German foreign ministry told NBC News that the German government “admits to the moral and historic responsibility towards Namibia, but the federal government does not allow for individual payments of compensation to representatives of the respective ethnic groups.”

'Kill everyone over 10'
Another infamous order in colonial history was issued by U.S. General Jake “Hell-Roaring” Smith, whose reported command to “Kill everyone over 10” during the Philippines-American War of 1899-1902 caused outrage in the United States. 

Retired Philippines Navy Commodore Rex Robles, 69, told NBC News that “the most prominent issue against the Americans in the Filipino-American War was the devastation of Samar, where hundreds were killed in cold blood by American troops in that province in retaliation for an ambush by Filipino rebels."

American troops fire on insurgents in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War, circa 1899.
American troops fire on insurgents in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War, circa 1899.Captain Jf Case / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

"The issue of the ‘Bells of Balangiga’ lingers to this day. The sacred church bells were taken by the Americans as war booty and never returned,” he added.

He said the Americans were “illegitimate conquerors,” adding that the Filipino forces had “fought valiantly against the usurpers, but were faced with superior force and logistics."

However, Robles said that Filipinos in general have a “positive attitude and feeling toward America.”

“This is fostered by the U.S. image as liberators from the Japanese occupation [during World War II], as well as the all-pervasive propaganda stemming from the American propaganda machine,” he said.

David Anderson, professor of African politics at England’s Oxford University, said propaganda was used by countries to cover their past crimes.

The U.K. was a world leader on torture and taught other countries how to do it, he said, but had created “a myth” that such behavior was not “British.”

He noted similarities between the language used to try to legalize torture by the British in Kenya – euphemisms such as “dilution” – and the George W. Bush administration’s insistence that waterboarding was not illegal, but simply “enhanced interrogation.”

What is torture? Ex-CIA official renews debate

“It’s very important to have a broader perspective. Torture has gone on, kind of everywhere and every time.” Anderson said. “It’s not a novelty, and in conflicts, bad stuff happens, so it should not surprise us.”

Anderson, who wrote a book called “Histories of the Hanged: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire,” said right-leaning U.K. commentators tended to dismiss “people like me” for “bashing the empire.”

"That totally misunderstands the point and that is not what I’m doing," he said. "The fundamental for me is if torture happens, then we need to do something about it."

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