Britain has agreed to compensate 5,228 elderly Kenyans who were tortured during the Mau Mau uprising against colonial rule in the 1950s, Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Thursday.
Hague stopped short of a full apology, but offered Britain's "sincere regrets" for the abuses as he unveiled a compensation deal worth £19.9 million (23.5 million euros, $30.8 million).
His statement follows a four-year legal battle in which Britain had sought to deny liability for the abuse, claiming legal responsibility had passed to the Kenyan government after independence in 1963.
"The British government recognises that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration," Hague told the House of Commons.
"The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place and that they marred Kenya's progress towards independence. Torture and ill-treatment are abhorrent violations of human dignity that we unreservedly condemn."
British law firm Leigh Day, which has pursued the case, welcomed the deal and said it had been agreed with all of its 5,228 Kenyan clients. If divided up equally, the payment per person reaches about £3,800 and represents about five times the annual salary of a low-level Kenyan civil servant.
About 160 elderly Mau Mau gathered to hear the announcement made simultaneously by the British high commissioner in Nairobi, where London will also help build a monument to victims of colonial-era torture as part of the deal.
"I'm thankful to heaven that we are still alive today to experience this and to be compensated for the atrocities that have been committed," said Habil Molo Ogola, 78.
He told AFP he was detained while trying to help Mau Mau prisoners escape. He was held for three years, during which he was tortured.
"I'm very grateful to the British for finally accepting to compensate us," he said.
Martyn Day, senior partner of Leigh Day, acknowledged the legal pressure on London to reach a deal but said "it takes courage to publicly acknowledge for the first time the terrible nature of Britain's past in Kenya".
He said thousands of Kenyans -- many of them unassociated with the Mau Mau insurgency -- had endured horrific treatment in detention camps run by British colonial officials.
"They included castration, rape and repeated violence of the worst kind. Although they occurred many years ago, the physical and mental scars remain," Day said.
He added: "The elderly victims of torture now at last have the recognition and justice they have sought for many years. For them this significance of this moment cannot be over-emphasised."
In a test case, claimants Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara last year told the High Court in London how they were subjected to torture and sexual mutilation.
Lawyers said that Nzili was castrated, Nyingi severely beaten and Mara subjected to appalling sexual abuse in detention camps during the Mau Mau rebellion.
A fourth claimant, Susan Ngondi, has died since legal proceedings began.
Lawyers for the Foreign Office had argued that liability for the abuses stood with the Kenyan government, and that the events took place too long ago to allow a fair trial. But the High Court in London twice ruled that the compensation claims could proceed.
In his statement, Hague said Britain continued to deny liability and insisted that Thursday's settlement would not represent a precedent for any other colonial-era complaints.
"It is of course right that those who feel they have a case are free to bring it to the courts," Hague said, but Britain would "also continue to exercise our own right to defend claims".
"And we do not believe that this settlement establishes a precedent in relation to any other former British colonial administration," he added.
More than 10,000 people were killed during the 1952-1960 Mau Mau uprising and tens of thousands were detained, including US President Barack Obama's grandfather.
Leigh Day said the delay in bringing the claims was because of a lack of research into the events of the time, and because the Mau Mau had been a taboo subject in Kenya until recent years.
But the discovery of a vast archive of colonial-era documents which the Foreign Office had kept hidden for decades revealed the extent of the mistreatment.
That has led to suggestions that London could also face fresh claims from other former colonial administrations.