INTERVIEW - British lawyer shines light on ‘dark shadows’ of colonial evictions

by Katy Migiro | @katymigiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 30 May 2017 13:00 GMT

Karim Khan attends the opening of the trial against Taylor in The Hague, Netherlands June 4, 2007, in this file photo. REUTERS/Robert Vos/Pool

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Survivors and their descendants hope to win compensation from Britain's High Court and the return of land from which they say they were evicted in the 1930s to make way for tea plantations

By Katy Migiro

NAIROBI, May 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Well-known in Kenya for successfully defending deputy-president William Ruto against war crimes charges, British lawyer Karim Khan has taken on another controversial case - digging into the "dark shadows" of the country's colonial past.

Khan will advise Kenyan lawyers on whether the evidence they gather from hundreds of elderly Kenyans is strong enough to bring a case under English law against the British colonial government which they accuse of displacement and torture.

"In the dark shadows of colonialism, exploitation was rife and where it is properly evidenced ... it's only right that it is recognised," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

"Where there was wrongdoing, acknowledge it and not only (with) lip service but a meaningful apology."

Survivors and their descendants hope to win compensation from Britain's High Court and the return of land from which they say they were evicted in the 1930s to make way for tea plantations.

"It is something that deserves proper scrutiny," he said, adding that such cases can help people to find closure and improve bilateral relations.

"Certain historical injustices need to be recognised ... It's something that I feel very passionately about and it's really worthwhile."

More than 5,200 elderly Kenyans won almost 14 million pounds ($18 million) in compensation from Britain in a 2013 out-of-court settlement for abuse by colonial forces during the 1950s Mau Mau insurgency.

Khan has an impressive profile, having successfully prosecuted in the international criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, as well as defending former Liberian president Charles Taylor in the Special Court for Sierra Leone.


Expectations have also been raised by his strong track record at the International Criminal Court, where cases against Ruto, Kenya's Ambassador Francis Muthaura and Sudanese rebel leader Bahar Idriss Abu Garda were all dropped.

"We will do our best for you," he told a cheering crowd of thousands in Kericho, at the heart of Kenya's tea estates, 18 months ago where he was invited by the county governor.

"Let us set our course and sail to that distant land where we hope we will find justice."

Three tea-producing county governments in Kenya had planned to pursue a joint case but only Nandi has engaged lawyers.

"The other two counties might start their own processes and, if needs be, we shall consolidate the cases into one," said Nandi County's legal advisor George Tarus.

Khan, 47, who specialises in international criminal and human rights law, said his interest in representing victims dates back to the pro bono work he did in 2009 for the United Nations-backed "Killing Fields" tribunal in Cambodia.

The tribunal gave life sentences to top cadres of the 1970s Khmer Rouge for the death of one-fifth of the population in mass executions, starvation, torture, and disease in labour camps.

"I was very humbled to see what it meant to a whole variety of very old victims and survivors," he said.

Khan is cautious about discussing the Nandi case.

The British government has always distanced itself from the actions of its colonial predecessor, saying the liabilities of the colony had been inherited by the Kenyan government.

Also the High Court would have to decide to waive the statute of limitations on claims, which is six years for personal injury, as it did in the Mau Mau case.

"These are very hard fought battles," said Khan. "They don't always result in success." (Reporting by Katy Migiro @katymigiro; Additional reporting by Daniel Wesangula; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit to see more stories.)

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