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Kenyan Cult Leader Is Charged With the Murder of 191 Children

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A doomsday cult leader whom the Kenyan authorities say ordered his congregants to starve themselves to death was charged on Tuesday, along with 29 others, with the murder of 191 children — in a case that has drawn global attention and brought widespread scrutiny over religious freedoms in the East African nation.

The decision, by a court in the coastal town of Malindi, was handed down almost a month after a judge ordered that the cult leader, Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, and the others who are accused undergo mental health evaluations before facing any charges.

Only one of the suspects was deemed mentally unfit to stand trial. Mr. Mackenzie, a pastor, and the other defendants pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to appear before the court on March 7 for a bond hearing. They are accused of killing the children from January 2021 to September 2023, according to the prosecution.

Mr. Mackenzie, wearing a striped black-and-white polo shirt, stood alongside the others accused in a packed courtroom on Tuesday. He was seen whispering to the other defendants and, at one point, consulting his lawyers, according to video broadcast on television. Armed police officers were stationed inside and outside the courtroom premises.

Since last April, hundreds of bodies have been exhumed from the 800-acre Shakahola Forest, where Mr. Mackenzie and his followers lived, with many buried in shallow graves. Dozens of other followers have been rescued, but hundreds more are missing, according to local officials.

The country’s interior minister, Kithure Kindiki, last week declared the pastor’s church, Good News International Ministries, “an organized criminal group.”

Mr. Mackenzie was a taxi driver who reinvented himself as an evangelical pastor about two decades ago. As his congregation grew, the authorities said, he urged followers to convene in the Shakahola Forest as a sanctuary from what he claimed was the fast-approaching apocalypse. As he preached that the world was about to end, officials say many of his followers starved themselves to death. Mr. Mackenzie denies telling them to do so.

In April, the police uncovered dozens of bodies from graves in the forest connected to the pastor. The revelations quickly gripped the nation, with many questioning why security and intelligence officials failed to detect the disappearances of victims early on.

President William Ruto, an evangelical Christian, compared the episode to “terrorism” and appointed a commission to investigate the deaths.

Mr. Kindiki, the interior minister, said the forest would be turned into a national memorial “so that Kenyans and the world do not forget what happened here.”

But from the outset, community activists and human rights groups reproached the government, urging officials to provide the survivors and the victims’ families with financial compensation.

The case has run into many roadblocks, with victims’ families and activists saying that the legal process is moving too slowly. Some of the cult members have refused to eat while staying at a rescue center and had to be given psychiatric and mental health support. And some of the lawyers representing Mr. Mackenzie and his co-defendants also pulled out of the case last June, citing frustration with the government over the amount of time they were given to consult and prepare their clients.

Activists have also raised concerns that the prosecution was treating some of the victims as perpetrators instead of focusing on Mr. Mackenzie and his close associates.

Many of the recovered bodies have not undergone DNA testing to identify them, said Shipeta Mathias Hezron, the Rapid Response officer with the Haki Africa rights organization. And while Tuesday’s charging is a step forward, Mr. Hezron said the case was a long way from being over.

“Let them charge those who participated in the crime, forced people to starve or killed them,” he said in a phone interview. “But for those suffering, there will be no closure anytime soon.”

Mohamed Ahmed contributed reporting from Mombasa, Kenya.


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