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50 years on, UK agrees to compensate Kenyans tortured during colonial rule

Ben Curtis / AP

Mau Mau veteran Mathenge Iregi, 81, waves a ceremonial whisk to celebrate as news emerges of the British decision to compensate victims of torture during colonial rule in Kenya.

The U.K. on Thursday finally agreed to pay compensation to thousands of victims of horrific torture during the British colonial rule in Kenya in the 1950s.

Nearly 50 years after Kenya became independent, British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the U.K. Parliament that a total of about $30 million would be paid to 5,228 victims and said his government "sincerely regrets" what happened.

It is a decision that may attract the attention of Barack Obama, whose Kenyan grandfather Onyango was held in a detention camp for six months, according to the president’s book “Dreams From My Father.”

PhotoBlog: A look back at the Kenyan victims of British colonial rule

“When he returned … he was very thin and dirty. He had difficulty walking, and his head was full of lice,” Obama wrote.

Popperfoto / Getty Images Contributor

British soldiers and police in Karoibangi, Kenya, in about 1954 round up local people for interrogation as they look for Mau Mau fighters.

Others detained by the British suffered far worse. During a court case last year in London -- which prompted the compensation deal -- victims described their horrific treatment by colonial officials as they struggled to deal with the “Mau Mau” uprising.

Paulo Muoka Nzili, now in his 80s, told the court he was abducted by Mau Mau fighters, but escaped only to be arrested by the British authorities. They castrated him, and Nzili said he was left “completely destroyed and without hope.”

Jane Muthoni Mara, in her 70s, 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.

A lawyer representing the U.K. told victims in July he did not dispute that “terrible things happened to you,” but the British government then tried to argue they could not sue because of the passage of time. That argument was thrown out by the court in October.

On Thursday, Hague told Parliament that the U.K. “recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.”

"The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya's progress towards independence,” he said.

This was the first official expression of regret by the U.K. government.

The British Foreign Office said in a statement that it had agreed to pay a total of 19.9 million pounds (about $30 million) in compensation and costs. The payment averages out at about $6,000 to each of the dwindling band of elderly survivors.

It also said it had agreed “to support the construction of a permanent memorial in Kenya.”

Gitu wa Kahengeri, secretary and spokesman of the Mau Mau War Veterans' Association, welcomed the U.K.’s decision at a press conference in Kenya.

“This is a beginning of reconciliation between the Mau Mau freedom fighters of Kenya and the British government, and we hope this will continue for many, many years to come,” he said.

“We want to trade with the British people. We want to enjoy life together with the British people, and we have started a reconciliation process which should not stop at any stage," he added.

Martyn Day, a senior partner at law firm Leigh Day, which represents the victims, said in a statement that it had taken courage for Hague “to publicly acknowledge for the first time the terrible nature of Britain's past in Kenya.”

“During the run up to Kenyan independence thousands of Kenyans suffered horrific treatment in detention camps run by the colony,” he said.

“These crimes were committed by British colonial officials and have gone unrecognized and unpunished for decades. They included castration, rape and repeated violence of the worst kind. Although they occurred many years ago, the physical and mental scars remain,” he said.

“Many of those who were detained and tortured were never tried and had little or nothing to do with the Mau Mau insurgency. The elderly victims of torture now at last have the recognition and justice they have sought for many years.”