By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain was responsible for the 1948 killing of 24 unarmed Malayan civilians who were shot dead by British troops during a campaign against Communist insurgents, a London court ruled on Tuesday, contradicting the official government position.
The mass killing in the rubber plantation village of Batang Kali, in what was then the British Protected State of Selangor, has caused six decades of controversy and remains an issue in Malaysia where many believe it was a cold-blooded massacre.
The official version at the time was that the 24 victims were insurgents or their supporters who were killed while attempting a mass escape.
But that account was challenged by witnesses, and in 1970 some of the soldiers involved told a British newspaper the killings had been pre-meditated and they had been ordered to cover up the truth.
"There is evidence that supports a deliberate execution of the 24 civilians at Batang Kali," said a written judgment delivered on Tuesday by two senior High Court judges.
The case is the latest to dredge up dark episodes of Britain's colonial past in court. Judgment is awaited in a separate claim by three Kenyans who say they were tortured under British orders during a 1950s insurgency.
Such cases are closely watched because any success, symbolic or material, is likely to encourage other former colonial subjects to come forward with their grievances.
The four claimants, who lost close relatives in the shootings, went to court to try and force the government to launch an inquiry. Their case, supported by 568 Malaysian organizations ranging from schools to temples and professional groups, was heard at the London High Court for two days in May.
In its judgment, the court rejected the claimants' argument that the government had a legal duty to hold an inquiry. Lawyer John Halford said they would appeal against the decision.
But in a victory for the claimants, the court rejected the government's argument that under treaties in force at the time, the soldiers were under the command of the local sultan and that responsibility for their actions had passed to Malaysia.
That means that in theory, survivors could attempt to sue for damages. However, Halford told Reuters this was not being considered at present.
"This case has never primarily been about compensation. What we think should happen in the first place is that the government should accept the findings of the court as to what happened, which it never has done hitherto, and apologize to the families," he said.
The British government does not endorse a specific view about what happened in Batang Kali on December 12, 1948, but refuses to hold a public inquiry, arguing it would not get to the bottom of disputed events that took place 63 years ago.
The 40-page court ruling brought some comfort to the claimants, criticizing attempts in the 1940s, 1970s and 1990s to investigate the shootings as flawed, and stating that some facts could no longer seriously be disputed.
The patrol of 14 Scots Guards, led by a 22-year-old sergeant, was made up mostly of young men on military service with no training in counter-insurgency warfare.
Acting on a tip off that Communist insurgents were active in the area, the patrol arrived in Batang Kali on December 11, 1948, and shot dead a young man that evening. They then separated women and children from men and locked them up in separate huts.
On December 12, the women and children were loaded onto a lorry and driven a short distance away. In their absence, a hut with 23 men inside was unlocked and within minutes all of them lay dead. The villagers' huts were torched and the patrol left.
Ten days after the event, the British owner of the rubber plantation where Batang Kali was located challenged the official version that the dead were "bandits", saying those killed had been loyal employees with a record of good conduct.
The episode has been repeatedly revisited since then in newspaper articles, TV documentaries and even police inquiries in both Britain and Malaysia, but the authorities in London have never changed the official record of what happened.
"We are considering all aspects of the High Court's judgment including the observations made regarding the capacity in which the soldiers acted," a government spokesman said.
"This was clearly a deeply regrettable incident and we extend our sympathy to the families and survivors for the loss of life and suffering."
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)