UK to release thousands of British Empire files

AP News
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Posted: Apr 05, 2011 5:24 PM
UK to release thousands of British Empire files

The U.K. is to release thousands of files containing sensitive information about how its officials behaved in the waning years of The British Empire, the Foreign Office said Tuesday.

The move follows a landmark court case brought by elderly Kenyan freedom fighters who are suing the British government over claims they were tortured during the "Mau Mau" rebellion in the 1950s.

Their lawyers Leigh Day had asked the Foreign Office to show them secret government documents, hidden for decades, that detail how rebels were treated. The government had initially denied knowledge of the files, but last year Leigh Day presented Britain's High Court with evidence obtained by Oxford University historian David Anderson which showed that around 300 files had been taken from Kenya to Britain just before the East African country gained independence in 1963.

A judge ordered the Foreign Office to search again for the files and, earlier this year, it discovered them in one of its archives.

The Foreign Office confirmed in a statement that further searches had "brought to light a large amount of potentially relevant material to the Mau Mau legal case."

The ruling has prompted the British government to promise the release of other files relating to dozens of former ex-colonies.

Foreign Office minister David Howell said the search for the Mau Mau documents had uncovered around 2,000 boxes of files from the 1950s and 1960s which the office has "decided to regularize."

Howell said in a statement to lawmakers in Britain's upper house on Tuesday that although colonial administrators left behind most of their papers after independence, they took certain files "not appropriate to hand onto the successor government" back to Britain.

He said British officials will go through around 8,800 files relating to 37 former British administrations _ including those in Palestine, Cyprus, Malaya, Nigeria and Northern Rhodesia _ and make most of them public.

"A lot here could be quite embarrassing," Anderson told The Associated Press. "I would imagine some of these files hold information on anti-colonial rebels who went on to become the new prime ministers and presidents."

He said the files may also hold information on how British officials gathered intelligence in the countries and how they planned to carry on gathering information after independence.

People in several countries say the British tortured rebels and held them without trial in detention camps in the final days of The British Empire. In Malaya, thousands were forced into camps as British forces hunted what it called "communist terrorists." In Palestine, the British carried out night raids and destroyed houses as it fought both Arab nationalism and rising Jewish immigration.

Anderson added that despite promising to make most of the documents publicly available, the British government may well use public record legislation to keep some of the most sensitive papers secret.

The British government will face its first test on whether these new files can be used against it on Thursday, when the four Kenyans _ Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara _ will argue that they were severely beaten and tortured by officers on behalf of the British government trying to suppress the Mau Mau uprising. Two of them have claimed they were castrated.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission believes 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed during the crackdown against the Mau Mau and 160,000 were detained in appalling conditions. Among those detained was President Barack Obama's grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama.

All sides declined to reveal detailed contents of the papers ahead of the court case Thursday, but Anderson said the documents may show evidence that people in all parts of the British government knew that captured Mau Mau fighters were being tortured.

"I've heard British officials say that all the abuse was carried out by junior officials, a few bad apples," said Anderson, whose book "Histories of the Hanged: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the end of Empire" investigates the Mau Mau uprising.

"These documents are critical _ we must hope they will reveal who did or did not know about what was going on."

The four Kenyans claim in court documents that their treatment is "part of a system of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment applied by police, Home Guards and other members of the security services with the knowledge of the Colonial Administration."

They want compensation and an apology from the British government for their treatment.

The Foreign Office said the emergency period "caused a great deal of pain for many on all sides, and marred progress towards independence. Regrettably this was not achieved without violence." It said it will argue on Thursday that the British government does not have to answer the case, and that any potential liability lies with the Kenyan authorities. The Kenyan government has denied it has any liability for the treatment of the Mau Mau under British rule.