/ 12 January 2024

Kenya court warns it may release suspected cult leader

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Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie (L), who set up the Good News International Church in 2003 and is accused of inciting cult followers to starve to death "to meet Jesus", talks to his relatives as he appeared in the dock, at the Shanzu law courts in Mombasa on May 5, 2023. (Photo by SIMON MAINA/AFP via Getty Images)

A Kenyan court this week gave authorities 14 days to prosecute a suspected cult leader or face having to release him after he was detained over the deaths of hundreds of his followers.

Paul Nthenge Mackenzie has seen his nine-month detention extended on several occasions already as an investigation continues into what happened in Shakahola Forest near Malindi on the coast, where human remains were discovered last April.

The former taxi driver, detained on 14 April, is accused of inciting hundreds of his evangelical Good News International Church followers to starve themselves to death so that they would “meet Jesus”, according to a senate report.

Mackenzie and his co-accused are believed to have prevented his followers from breaking their fast or trying to escape from the forest.

The apparent massacre has met with incomprehension in Kenya, a majority Christian country with about 4 000 officially registered “churches”, according to government data.

But the country of 53 million people has struggled to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults that participate in criminality.

“This is the longest pre-charge detention in the history of the country” since the Constitution was redrafted in 2010, according to Judge Yusuf Abdallah Shikanda.

He said a prosecution would have to follow or Mackenzie and 29 co-accused could be released in two weeks’ time.

Prosecutors had, in September, called for 180 days more to hold Mackenzie from that point but Shikanda noted that 117 days had since elapsed.

“In my view, that is sufficient time within which the pending investigations ought to have been completed,” he said. 

In May, prosecutors had indicated they would bring a case for “terrorism” against Mackenzie, who was detained the day after the first bodies were discovered in the forest. To date, 429 bodies have been located.

Autopsies have shown that the majority of the victims died of hunger but others, including children, appear to have been strangled, beaten or suffocated.

A senate commission of inquiry reported in October that the self-proclaimed pastor had faced charges back in 2017 for his extreme preaching, but “the criminal justice system failed to deter the heinous activities of Paul Mackenzie in Shakahola”.

Mackenzie was acquitted on charges of radicalisation in 2017 for illegally providing school teaching — he rejected the formal educational system that he claimed was not in line with the Bible. In 2019, he was also accused of links to the death of two children believed to have been starved, suffocated and then buried in a shallow grave in Shakahola forest. He was released on bail pending trial.