Four elderly Kenyans have been given approval from a London high court to sue the British government over alleged atrocities committed during the Mau Mau uprising.
The decision on Thursday to take proceedings to the next stage is a setback for the Foreign Office which had argued that the British government should not be held liable because legal responsibility has passed on to the present Kenyan government.
It also opens the debate over the possibility of additional landmark lawsuits against Britain and other European nations for abuses during the colonial era, one of the Kenyans' attorneys said.
Al Jazeera's Nadim Baba said the main aim of the case was "moral and not financial" and that much was yet to be decided about the next step in the legal process.
"There is some wariness from the claimants about the delays that could come before a trial. The Foreign Office is expected to raise issues of limitations, saying too much time has elapsed," said Baba from outside the High Court in London on Thursday.
"If the case is allowed to go to full trial, we're looking at sometime in early 2012," he added.
Despite the potential delays, several Mau Mau supporters present in the court room in London told Reuters the judgment was a "great day for Kenya".
"It's so far so good but we're hoping that things get better and the right decision will be made in favour of the survivors," said Sammy Kimetu, originally from Kenya.
Richard McCombe, the high court judge, ruled on Thursday that the claimants "have arguable cases in law", and that the suit can go ahead.
But he added: "I have not found that there was systematic torture nor, if there was, the UK government is liable."
|Kenyans say they were beaten and sexually assaulted by officers acting for the UK government [GETTY]
The British government had tried to have the case thrown out, saying it could not be held legally responsible for the long-ago abuses. It argues that legal responsibility was transferred to the Kenyan Republic when it became independent in 1963.
Its counsel, Robert Jay, had argued that the case was "built on inference" and ended in a "cul-de-sac", the Press Association reported.
But Al Jazeera's Baba said the ruling was a "cause for cautious optimism".
"The [claimants] are confident they will get compensation and an apology from the British government," he said.
The plaintiffs, Ndiku Mutwiwa Mutua, Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara, who are in their 70s and 80 - flew more than 6,400 kilometres from their rural homes for the trial earlier this year. The abuses in question were allegedly committed in British detention camps between 1952 and 1961.
The Kenyans say they were beaten and sexually assaulted by officers acting for the British administration who were trying to suppress the rebellion against the British officials and white farmers who had settled in some of Kenya's most fertile lands.
They say British administrators were aware they were being mistreated, and want an apology and compensation. They were not in court for Thursday's judgment.
'Open a can of worms'
At the earlier hearing, the judge was told that Mutua and Nzili had been castrated while Nyingi was beaten unconscious in an incident in which 11 men were clubbed to death. Mara had been subjected to sexual abuse, the judge heard.
Historians estimate as many as 150,000 suspected members of the Mau Mau, a resistance movement launched by Kenyan tribes, were detained without trial between 1952 and 1961 and placed in British-administered camps.
The decision to take proceedings to the next stage is a setback for the Foreign Office which had argued that the British government should not be held liable as legal responsibility has devolved on to the present Kenyan government.
Next Easter, another hearing will be held to assess the evidence before any decision is made on whether to proceed to a full trial.
If the test-case claimants are eventually successful, more similar cases seeking substantial damages could be brought against the British government.
Welcoming the decision, Martyn Day who represents the Kenyan survivors said the British government could "open a can of worms" if an eventual judgment is made against them.
"Undoubtedly the government is worried about the impact and implication of a judgment of this sort being made against them," he told Reuters.
"It would be much more sensible for the government to sit around the table and talk to us rather than potentially face massive trouble from colonial groups around the world."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies