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Hillary ORINDE

Two Kenyan pastors face courts over cult massacre

Some 30 mass graves have been discovered containing more than 100 bodies, most children, at Shakahola forest. ©AFP

Malindi (Kenya) (AFP) - Two pastors were appearing before Kenyan courts on Tuesday suspected of being behind the deaths of at least 109 people found buried in what has been dubbed the "Shakahola forest massacre".

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

Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, who set up the Good News International Church in 2003 and is accused of inciting cult 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 was brought in by about half a dozen police officers along with eight other defendants.

Wearing a pink and black jacket and brown trousers, Mackenzie conferred with his lawyer George Kariuki, who told AFP: "We have not been told what application the prosecution wants to make.We are just waiting to see."

A total of 109 people have so far been confirmed dead, most of them children.The first autopsies from Shakahola 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.

'Innocent and vulnerable followers'

Ezekiel Odero, a wealthy and high-profile televangelist, is expected in court in the East African nation's second-largest city of Mombasa following his arrest in Malindi on Thursday.

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

The prosecution is seeking to detain him for a further 30 days, citing 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.

A crowd of his supporters gathered outside the court, singing and praying, while some were in tears.

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 been found.

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.

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

The horrific saga has seen President William Ruto intervene on 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 -- where there are 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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