Kenya Starvation Cult Leader Goes On Trial On Terrorism Charges

(AFP) — The leader of a Kenyan doomsday cult went on trial on Monday on charges of terrorism over the deaths of more than 400 of his followers in a macabre case that shocked the world.

Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie appeared in court in the Indian Ocean port city of Mombasa along with 94 co-defendants, an AFP journalist said.

Journalists were removed from the courtroom shortly after the start of the hearing to enable a protected witness to take the stand.

Mackenzie, who was arrested in April last year, is alleged to have incited his acolytes to starve to death in order to “meet Jesus”.

He and his co-accused all pleaded not guilty to the charges of terrorism at a hearing in January.

They also face charges of murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, and child torture and cruelty in separate cases.

The remains of more than 440 people have been unearthed so far in a remote wilderness inland from the Indian Ocean coastal town of Malindi, in a case that has been dubbed the “Shakahola forest massacre”.

Autopsies have found that while starvation appeared to be the main cause of death, some of the victims — including children — were strangled, beaten, or suffocated.

Previous court documents also said that some of the bodies had had their organs removed.

Mackenzie, a former taxi driver, turned himself in on April 14 after police acting on a tip-off first entered Shakahola forest, where mass graves have been found.

In March, the authorities began releasing some victims’ bodies to distraught relatives after months of painstaking work to identify them using DNA.

Questions have been raised about how Mackenzie, a self-styled pastor with a history of extremism, managed to evade law enforcement despite his prominent profile and previous legal cases.

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki last year accused Kenyan police of laxity in investigating the initial reports of starvation.

“The Shakahola massacre is the worst breach of security in the history of our country,” he told a senate committee hearing, vowing to “relentlessly push for legal reforms to tame rogue preachers”.

The state-backed Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) in March criticised security officers in Malindi for “gross abdication of duty and negligence”.

The horrific saga has seen President William Ruto vow to intervene in Kenya’s homegrown religious movements.

In largely Christian Kenya, it has also thrown a spotlight on failed efforts to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults that have dabbled in criminality.