On Tuesday, two pastors appeared in Kenyan courts, accused of being involved in the deaths of at least 109 persons buried in what has been nicknamed the “Shakahola forest massacre.”
The discovery of mass graves in a forest near the Indian Ocean coastal town of Malindi last month surprised the very religious Christian-majority country.
Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, the self-proclaimed pastor who founded the Good News International Church in 2003 and is accused of pushing cult followers to starve to death “to meet Jesus,” appeared in court in Malindi.
The small courtroom was crowded with victims’ relatives as a half-dozen police officers led Mackenzie and eight other defendants in.
Mackenzie, dressed in a pink and black jacket and brown trousers, met with his lawyer, George Kariuki, who told AFP, “We have not been told what application the prosecution wants to make.” We’ll just have to wait and see.”
So far, 109 people have been confirmed dead, the majority of whom are children. The first autopsy from Shakahola were performed on nine children and one woman on Monday.
Authorities confirmed that malnutrition was the cause of death, while some victims were asphyxiated.
‘Innocent and vulnerable followers’
Following his arrest in Malindi on Thursday, Ezekiel Odero, a wealthy and well-known televangelist, is scheduled to appear in court in Mombasa, East Africa’s second-largest city.
Odero is accused of murder, suicide assistance, kidnapping, radicalization, crimes against humanity, child cruelty, fraud, and money laundering.
The prosecution wants him detained for another 30 days, citing solid evidence tying the bodies excavated at Shakahola to the deaths of several “innocent and vulnerable followers” of Odero’s New Life Prayer Centre and Church.
A crowd of his supporters gathered outside the court, singing and praying, while some were in tears.
According to court documents obtained by AFP, Mackenzie is accused of murder, kidnapping, and cruelty to children, among other offenses.
The former taxi driver surrendered on April 14 when police, acting on a tip, first entered Shakahola woodland, where 30 mass graves were discovered.
Prosecutors have linked Odero and Mackenzie, claiming in court records that they have a “history of business investments,” including a television station that broadcasted “radicalized messages” to followers.
Questions have been raised about Mackenzie, a self-styled pastor with a history of radicalism, evading law enforcement despite his high profile and previous legal troubles.
President William Ruto has intervened in Kenya’s homegrown religious movements, shining a light on failed efforts to govern unethical churches and cults that have dabbled in criminality.
According to Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki, Ruto will form a task force this week to oversee religious activity in Kenya, which has over 4,000 churches.
He said the government must “make sure we don’t infringe on the sacred right of the freedom of worship, opinion and belief”.
“But at the same time, we don’t allow criminals to misuse that right to hurt, kill, torture and starve people to death.”