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Britain's former empire could face trial on charges stemming from empire's rule decades ago

| Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, 9:26 p.m.

A historic legal ruling in London today could leave Britain's government facing dozens of new court cases alleging systematic torture by the officers of its former empire dating back decades.

Three Kenyans who say Britain's imperial administration beat, raped, or castrated them in the 1950s have won the right to take their allegations to a full trial after a three-year legal battle. The claimants are asking for compensation and a government apology.

The High Court in London dismissed arguments from Britain's Foreign Office that a fair trial was impossible because many potential witnesses have died and because the events in question happened so long ago.

“It's a seismic ruling, with implications in multiple other former British colonial territories,” says Caroline Elkins, a Harvard University professor and author of “Imperial Reckoning,” a study of Britain's conduct during its imperial administration in Kenya.

“This case didn't come out of thin air. There are other colonial theaters — Palestine, Northern Ireland, Malaya, Aden, Cyprus — where a very similar kind of systematic brutality and violence played out,” Ms. Elkins says.

“The High Court has stated that, even 50 years later, governments can be held accountable for their actions. While it does not say that they will be, or what the outcome will be, it opens the door for these other cases to start too,” Elkins says.

In his ruling, Justice Richard McCombe said there was enough potential evidence in Britain's imperial archives available to both prosecution and defense to permit legal action to move forward.

“The documentation is voluminous ... the governments and military commanders seem to have been meticulous record keepers,” Justice McCombe said when reading the ruling aloud in court.

“I have reached the conclusion ... that a fair trial on this part of the case does remain possible and that the evidence on both sides remains significantly cogent for the court to complete its task satisfactorily,” McCombe said.

Martyn Day, the British lawyer representing the three Kenyans, called the court's decision today “historic” and said it would “reverberate around the world.”

“The British Government ... has been hiding behind technical legal defenses for three years in order to avoid any legal responsibility,” 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.”

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