The death toll in an investigation linked to a Kenyan cult that practised starvation has climbed to 201, as search teams on Saturday unearthed 22 more bodies from a coastal forest, a government official said.
Police believe most of the bodies found in a forest near the Indian Ocean town of Malindi belong to followers of Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, a taxi driver-turned-preacher who is accused of inciting them to starve to death “to meet Jesus”.
Coast Regional Commissioner Rhoda Onyancha, who announced the latest figures, said 26 people have been arrested over the deaths, including Mackenzie and an “enforcer gang” tasked with ensuring that no one broke their fast or left the forest hideout alive.
She said investigators would halt exhumations for two days to reorganise their efforts, with the process to resume on Tuesday.
Mackenzie has not yet been required to enter a plea but a court on Wednesday ordered him to be detained for three more weeks pending further investigations over what has been dubbed the “Shakahola Forest Massacre”.
The 50-year-old founder of the Good News International Church turned himself in on April 14 after police acting on a tip-off first entered Shakahola forest.
While starvation appears to be the main cause of death, some of the victims — including children — were strangled, beaten or suffocated, according to chief government pathologist Johansen Oduor.
Court documents filed on Monday said some of the corpses had their organs removed, with police alleging the suspects were engaged in forced harvesting of body parts.
But Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki urged caution, telling reporters on Tuesday that “it is a theory we are investigating”.
Onyancha said that over 600 people have been reported missing, including from villages around the forest.
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 horrific saga has stunned Kenyans and led President William Ruto to set up a commission of inquiry into the deaths and a task force to review regulations governing religious bodies.
Another pastor accused of links to Mackenzie and to the bodies found in the forest was released on bail at a court hearing last week.
Ezekiel Odero, a high-profile and wealthy televangelist, is being investigated on a raft of charges including murder, aiding suicide, abduction, radicalisation, crimes against humanity, child cruelty, fraud and money laundering.
Prosecutors say they have credible information linking the corpses exhumed at Shakahola to the deaths of several “innocent and vulnerable followers” from Odero’s New Life Prayer Centre and Church.
Odero has told the court that he wanted to “strongly disassociate” himself from Mackenzie and disagreed with his teachings.
Efforts to regulate religion in the majority-Christian country have been fiercely opposed in the past as attempts to undermine constitutional guarantees for the division of church and state. – AFP