Kenya starvation cult leader charged with terrorismThu, 18 Jan 2024 14:05:20 GMT

A Kenyan court on Thursday charged the leader of a starvation cult with terrorism over the deaths of more than 400 of his followers.Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie and 94 other suspects pleaded “not guilty” to charges of radicalisation. The cult leader was also charged with “organised criminal activity”, according to documents from the Mombasa court seen by AFP.A largely Christian nation, Kenya has struggled to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults that dabble in criminality.Mackenzie is alleged to have incited his acolytes to starve to death in order to “meet Jesus” in a case that provoked horror across the world. He was arrested last April after bodies were discovered in the Shakahola forest near the Indian Ocean.Autopsies revealed that the majority of the 429 victims had died of hunger.But others, including children, appeared to have been strangled, beaten or suffocated.Court documents described Good News International Ministries founded by Mackenzie as “an organized criminal group (which) engaged in organized criminal activities thereby endangering lives and leading to the death of 429 members and followers.”Mackenzie’s pre-trial detention in the coastal city of 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.Prosecutors are also due to conduct mental health assessments to establish if 31 suspects including Mackenzie were fit to stand trial for murder at a court in the coastal town of Malindi.A judge at the Malindi court on Wednesday ordered the 31 defendants to file pleas on February 6.The office of the director of public prosecutions said on Tuesday that the state had “sufficient evidence to prosecute 95 suspects” and charge them with murder, manslaughter and terrorism.- Fringe denominations -The grisly case, dubbed the “Shakahola forest massacre”, prompted the government to flag up the need for tighter control of fringe denominations.Kenya has a history of self-declared pastors and movements.Questions have been raised about how Mackenzie, a father of seven, managed to evade law enforcement despite a history of extremism and previous legal cases.A Senate commission of inquiry reported in October that Mackenzie had faced charges in 2017 for extreme preaching.”(But) the criminal justice system failed to deter the heinous activities of Paul Mackenzie in Shakahola,” it said.He was acquitted of charges of radicalisation in 2017 for illegally providing school teaching after rejecting 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 the trial, which is ongoing.There are more than 4,000 churches registered in the East African country of 53 million people, according to government figures.