A Kenyan court on Thursday charged the leader of a starvation cult with child torture and cruelty over the deaths of more than 400 of his followers.Paul Nthenge Mackenzie and 38 other suspects pleaded not guilty to charges including beating and deliberately starving children, according to court documents from the Mombasa court seen by AFP. Mackenzie, who has already been charged with terrorism and manslaughter, 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. A court in the coastal city of Malindi is scheduled to rule on February 6 if the self-proclaimed pastor is mentally fit to face additional charges of murder.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.The charge sheet from the Tononoka Children’s Court in the port city of Mombasa alleged that the offences occurred between 2020 and 2023 in the Shakahola forest where Mackenzie’s cult gathered.The accused “wilfully and intentionally” denied food to children as young as six years old and whipped others with thorny sticks, the court documents stated.Apart from abuse and neglect, some children were also removed from school and denied their right to an education, it added.Mackenzie has also pleaded not guilty to terrorism and manslaughter.A largely Christian nation, Kenya has struggled to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults that dabble in criminality.The grisly case, dubbed the “Shakahola forest massacre”, led the government to flag the need for tighter control of fringe denominations.Questions have been raised about how Mackenzie managed to evade law enforcement despite a history of extremism and previous legal cases.A Senate commission of inquiry reported in October that the father of seven had faced charges in 2017 for extreme preaching.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. He was released on bail pending trial.There are more than 4,000 churches registered in Kenya, according to government figures.