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AFP
AFP
World
Hillary ORINDE

Kenyan pastor to face terrorism charges over cult massacre

Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie is alleged to have incited his followers to starve to death 'to meet Jesus' . ©AFP

Malindi (Kenya) (AFP) - A Kenyan cult leader accused of inciting his followers to starve themselves to death will face terrorism charges over the deaths of more than 100 people found buried in mass graves, prosecutors said after a court hearing Tuesday.

The deeply religious Christian-majority country has been stunned by the discovery of mass graves last month near the Indian Ocean coastal town of Malindi in what has been dubbed the "Shakahola forest massacre."

Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, who set up the Good News International Church in 2003 and is accused of inciting followers to starve to death "to meet Jesus," appeared in the dock in Malindi.

The small courtroom was packed with relatives of victims as Mackenzie, dressed in a pink and black jacket and brown trousers, was brought in by about half a dozen police officers along with eight other defendants.

After a brief hearing, the case was moved to the high court in Kenya's second-largest city of Mombasa, where the suspects will face terrorism charges, prosecutor Vivian Kambaga told AFP. 

"There is a court (in Mombasa) that is gazetted to handle cases under the prevention of terrorism act," Kambaga told a magistrate during the hearing in Malindi, asking for the case to be moved to the high court.

Ezekiel Odero, a wealthy and high-profile televangelist, also appeared at the high court in Mombasa following his arrest in Malindi on Thursday in connection with the same case.

A total of 109 people have so far been confirmed dead, most of them children.

The first autopsies from Shakahola forest were carried out Monday on nine children and one woman.

They confirmed starvation as the cause of death, though some victims were asphyxiated, the authorities said.

'Vulnerable followers'

Odero is suspected of murder, aiding suicide, abduction, radicalisation, crimes against humanity, child cruelty, fraud and money laundering.

The court in Mombasa on Tuesday allowed police to detain Odero until a hearing on May 4, refusing a request by the prosecution to hold him for 30 days.

"(He) is supposed to be in court on Thursday...he will be in court at 9:00 am for him to be either released (or) be charged", Danston Omari, one of Odero's lawyers, told AFP in Mombasa.

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.

Cliff Ombeta, another of Odero's lawyers, told reporters earlier Tuesday that there was no evidence connecting the pastor to the Shakahola discoveries.

"Evidence must be brought.It is a case where you must prove," he said.

A crowd of Odero's supporters had earlier gathered outside the court, singing and praying, while some were in tears.

In addition to the terrorism charges prosecutors plan to file, Mackenzie stands accused of murder, kidnapping, cruelty towards children among other crimes in court documents seen by AFP.

The former taxi driver turned himself in on April 14 after police acting on a tip-off first entered Shakahola forest, where some 30 mass graves have now been found.

'Radicalised messages'

Prosecutors have linked Odero and Mackenzie, saying in court documents that they share a "history of business investments" including a television station used to pass "radicalised messages" to followers.

In his filing to the court, Odero said he wanted to "strongly disassociate" himself from Mackenzie and disagreed with his teachings.

Questions have been raised about how Mackenzie, a self-styled pastor with a history of extremism, managed to evade law enforcement despite his prominent profile and previous legal cases.

The horrific saga has seen President William Ruto vow to intervene in Kenya's homegrown religious movements, and thrown a spotlight on failed efforts to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults that have dabbled in criminality.

This week Ruto will set up a task force on how to govern religious activities in Kenya, home to about 4,000 churches, Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said Monday.

He said the government must "make sure we don't infringe on the sacred right of the freedom of worship, opinion and belief".

"But at the same time we don't allow criminals to misuse that right to hurt, kill, torture and starve people to death."

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