A Kenyan court on Thursday extended the detention of a cult leader who has been accused of inciting his followers to starve themselves to death.
Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, a self-proclaimed pastor, has been in police custody since mid-April, as investigators search for additional bodies in a forest near the Indian Ocean coast.
The court hearing, presided over by senior principal magistrate Yusuf Shikanda in the city of Mombasa, resulted in the decision to hold Mackenzie and his 29 co-accused for an additional 47 days for further investigations.
In a ruling seen by AFP, Shikanda stated, “The application by the state for extension of custodial orders is allowed… for a further period not exceeding 47 days from 2/8/2023.”
Mackenzie, a former taxi driver and founder of the Good News International Church, has not yet entered a plea.
State prosecutors have stated that once the investigations are concluded, the 30 defendants will undergo psychiatric assessments before facing charges of terrorism and other offenses.
So far, a total of 425 bodies have been discovered in the Shakahola forest, which is a 325-hectare bushland located inland from the town of Malindi on the Indian Ocean.
To accommodate the autopsies of 87 bodies, a fourth round of exhumations was temporarily suspended on July 19 to allow the ill-equipped morgue in Malindi to operate.
Despite starvation being the primary cause of death, some of the victims, including children, were found to have been strangled, beaten, or suffocated based on government-conducted autopsies.
Dubbed the “Shakahola Forest Massacre,” a total of 37 individuals have been arrested by the police in connection with the case.
In addition, 95 people have been rescued from the forest, and police have collected 464 DNA samples from families searching for their missing loved ones.
Concerns have been raised about how Mackenzie, a father of seven, managed to evade law enforcement despite his history of extremism and previous legal cases.
In 2017, Mackenzie faced legal trouble after urging children not to attend school, claiming that education was not recognized in the Bible.
In March, he was arrested again following the starvation deaths of two children in the custody of their parents, but was subsequently released on bond.
The distressing series of events prompted President William Ruto to address the issue of Kenya’s homegrown religious movements and the failed attempts to regulate deceitful churches and cults involved in illegal activities.
According to government figures, there are over 4,000 registered churches in the East African country, which has a population of approximately 53 million people.
In June, the government announced plans to convert the vast coastal forest into a national memorial site.