For the first time, Britain on Tuesday admitted that its colonial forces in Kenya tortured and abused Mau Mau rebels in the 1950s and 1960s as it emerged that British officials destroyed or removed “embarrassing” evidence about the rebellion in the days before Kenya gained independence in 1963.

The admission came during a hearing at the London High Court where three elderly Kenyans are suing Britain for damages claiming that they were tortured in detention camps run by British colonial forces as part of a policy of “systematic” and “widespread” abuse of Mau Mau detainees.

Guy Mansfield, QC, representing the British government, said it did not dispute that “terrible things” happened to the rebels and that civilians suffered ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration.

“The government does not dispute that each of the claimants suffered torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration. I do not dispute that terrible things happened,” he said.

Lawyers for the octogenarian claimants, being backed by the Kenyan government and three leading historians from Oxford, Harvard and London universities, said it was the first official British acknowledgement of its colonial-era crimes.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written to Prime Minister David Cameron accusing Britain of trying to evade its responsibility by relying on a “technical defence” that the legal responsibility for what happened in detention camps was transferred to the Kenyan government at the time of independence.

“The British government’s reliance on legal technicality in response to allegations of torture of the worst kind will undermine Britain’s reputation and authority as a champion for human rights,” he wrote.

Lawyers for the claimants — Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambuga Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara — cited secret colonial files showing that British officials at the highest level knew about the atrocities but took no action. They said Mr. Nzili was castrated, Mr. Nyingi severely beaten and Ms Mara subjected to appalling sexual abuse.

A fourth claimant, Ndiku Mutwiwa Mutua, has died since the High Court ruled last year that the case could go ahead.

It is seen as a test case which, if successful, could open the door for similar claims from victims of atrocities in Britain’s other former colonies.

More In: International | News