Kenya releases first cult massacre bodies to familiesTue, 26 Mar 2024 09:59:11 GMT

Kenyan authorities on Tuesday began releasing the bodies of victims of a doomsday starvation cult, almost a year since the discovery of mass graves in a grisly case that shocked the world.One family received four bodies that were loaded into a hearse from a morgue in the Indian Ocean town of Malindi, as loved-ones wailed, an AFP correspondent at the scene said.The remains are the first to be handed over to their relatives after months of painstaking work to identify them using DNA.Hundreds of bodies, including those of children, have been exhumed from the shallow mass graves discovered in April last year in a remote wilderness inland from Malindi.Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie is alleged to have incited his followers to starve to death in order to “meet Jesus” in what has been dubbed the “Shakahola forest massacre”. A number of the 429 bodies exhumed between April and October last year have been positively identified through DNA profiling.While starvation caused many deaths, some of the bodies, including of children, showed signs of death by asphyxiation, strangulation or bludgeoning, according to government autopsies. A homicide officer from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations told AFP it was up to relatives to make their own burial arrangements. Families have had to endure a painful wait for the bodies of their loved-ones after the DNA profiling was delayed by lack of reagents and equipment.  Mackenzie is facing a slew of charges, accused of driving his followers to death by preaching that starvation was the only path to God.The former taxi driver turned messiah has pleaded not guilty to 191 counts of murder, manslaughter and terrorism. He has also been charged with child torture and cruelty.- ‘People need closure’ -The state-backed Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) last week accused security officers in Malindi “gross abdication of duty and negligence”. “They not only failed to be proactive in collecting and acting on intelligence to forestall the Shakahola massacre but also unjustifiably failed to act on credible and actionable reports,” KNCHR chair Roseline Odede said. The body also deplored the slow process of identifying the victims and enabling families to bury them, saying: “People are anxious and need closure on the matter”.But chief government pathologist Johansen Oduor said last week that most of the families have not been coming to claim the bodies, posing a challenge to obtain DNA samples. Oduor said Monday that at least 35 other mass graves have been identified in Shakahola and further exhumations set to begin soon could drive up the overall death toll. 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.The case led the government to flag the need for tighter control of fringe denominations.A devout largely Christian nation, Kenya has struggled to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults that dabble in criminality.Kenya’s interior minister has said the authorities will convert Shakahola forest into a national memorial site.