Kenyan suspect in religious cult deaths dies in custody after hunger strike

MOMBASA, Kenya (Reuters) – A Kenyan accused of involvement in the deaths of hundreds of members of a starvation cult has died after a 10-day hunger strike in police custody, a prosecutor said on Wednesday.

Joseph Buyuka was among 30 people, including self-styled pastor Paul Mackenzie of Good News International Church, in custody over the deaths of 337 followers of the church.

“The police believe that these individuals… played significant roles in the offences leading to the deaths and illegal disposal of bodies in Shakahola (forest),” court papers said of Buyuka and four others arrested with him.

Authorities have exhumed most of the bodies from the forest in southeast Kenya since April.

Jami Yamina, senior prosecution counsel, said Buyuka had died two days ago at a hospital in Malindi, about 116 km (72 miles) from the port city of Mombasa where he had been taken from a nearby prison.

“He died …(due to) … complications from hunger strike and starvation, but we will await postmortem report,” Yamina told a court in Mombasa.

“Two other suspects … have also been taken ill. Police believe it is related to their hunger strike.”

Mackenzie is accused of ordering his followers to starve their children and themselves to death so they could reach heaven before the end of the world.

He handed himself over to police in April and was denied bail last month. The other suspects were arrested later after authorities started the exhumations.

He and the others have not yet been required to enter a plea.

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki had expressed concern in May that some of Mackenzie’s rescued followers were refusing food. One of them had died, he said at the time.

(Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Bhargav Acharya and Andrew Cawthorne)