Kenya religious cult leader to face murder charges over Shakahola deaths

Authorities say Paul Mackenzie ordered his followers to starve themselves and their children to death, to go to heaven.

Preacher Paul Mackenzie
Preacher Paul Mackenzie, centre, who was arrested two weeks ago for asking his followers to starve to death in order to meet Jesus, appears at a court in Malindi, Kenya on May 2, 2023 [AP Photo]

A Kenyan court has ordered cult leader Paul Mackenzie and 30 associates to undergo mental health evaluations before being charged with the murder of 191 children whose bodies have been exhumed since last April from the Shakahola forest.

During a hearing in the coastal town of Malindi on Wednesday, the court granted a prosecution request to conduct mental health assessments of the 31 defendants before they are formally charged and enter pleas in two weeks.

Prosecutors say they will charge 95 people in total on counts of murder, manslaughter, terrorism, and torture.

A lawyer for Mackenzie, who has been in custody since police started unearthing bodies in the forest, has said the self-styled pastor is cooperating with the investigation.

Authorities say Mackenzie, the head of the Good News International Church, ordered his followers in southeastern Kenya to starve themselves and their children to death so that they could go to heaven before the world ended.

More than 400 bodies were uncovered over months of exhumations across tens of thousands of acres of forest, making this one of the world’s worst cult-related tragedies in recent history.

During the hearing, Mackenzie, dressed in a white-and-blue-striped polo shirt, sat largely expressionless alongside his fellow defendants in the courtroom.

Prosecutors have attributed delays in bringing charges to the gruelling and delicate task of locating and exhuming so many human remains and performing autopsies. Some of Mackenzie’s other followers were rescued, emaciated, from the forest.

People with knowledge of the cult’s activities told Reuters news agency last year that Mackenzie planned the mass starvation in three phases: first children, then women and young men, and finally the remaining men.

A former taxi driver in the coastal city of Mombasa, Mackenzie forbade cult members from sending their children to school and from going to hospital when they were ill, branding such institutions as satanic, some of his followers said.

He was convicted in December of producing and distributing films without a licence and sentenced to 12 months in jail.

The cult leader had been arrested before in 2019, also relating to the deaths of children, but was released on bond. The cases are still in court.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies