A Kenyan court has charged cult leader Paul Mackenzie with “terrorism”-related crimes over the deaths of 429 of his followers.
The self-proclaimed pastor was charged along with 94 others on Thursday over the deaths of followers whose bodies have been exhumed from the Shakahola forest near the Indian Ocean.
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Mackenzie was arrested last April after the bodies began being discovered.
The charges, announced during an appearance before a court in the southeastern city of Mombasa, are the first to be brought against him.
Mackenzie and his co-defendants denied the charges during their appearance before the judge, Joe Omido. They are due back in court on February 8 for a bond hearing.
Authorities allege that Mackenzie, the head of the Good News International Church, incited his acolytes in southeastern Kenya to starve themselves and their children to death so they could go to heaven before the world ended.
The bodies of the victims were uncovered over months of exhumations across tens of thousands of acres of forest.
Autopsies revealed that the majority had died of hunger. But others, including children, appeared to have been strangled, beaten or suffocated.
‘Organised criminal group’
Court documents cited by the APF news agency described Good News International Ministries as “an organised criminal group (which) engaged in organised criminal activities thereby endangering lives and leading to the death of 429 members and followers”.
Mackenzie was also charged with “organised criminal activity”, AFP reported, and he and the other suspects pleaded “not guilty” to charges of radicalisation.
Mackenzie’s pre-trial detention in Mombasa was extended on several occasions as the prosecution asked for more time to probe the case.
But last week a court warned the authorities that it would release the former taxi driver unless charges were filed within 14 days.
On Wednesday, a judge in a different court in the coastal town of Malindi ordered that Mackenzie and 30 of his associates be taken for mental health evaluations before being charged with murder in connection with 191 deaths.
Prosecutors in Mombasa and Malindi say they will also charge the 95 people on counts of manslaughter and torture.
The grisly case, dubbed the “Shakahola forest massacre”, prompted Kenya’s government to flag up the need for tighter control of fringe denominations.
The cult leader had been arrested before in 2019, also in relation to the deaths of children, but was released on bond. The cases are still in court.