Kenya ‘cult’ investigation widens as death toll reaches 90

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The Guardian

Interior minister says deaths in Malindi could be ‘tip of the iceberg’ as police exhume 17 more bodies

The death toll at a ranch in Kenya owned by a pastor who is accused of leading a religious cult and ordering his followers to starve themselves in order to “meet Jesus” has reached 90, as the country’s interior minister announced an expanded operation at the site.

The new figure came after police exhumed 17 more bodies. The total number of those rescued while starving at the ranch now stands at 34. The Kenya Red Cross Society’s latest figure on the number of missing is 213.

Pastor Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, who heads the Good News International church, is accused of luring his followers to the ranch near the coastal town of Malindi. He allegedly told them to fast until death in order to meet Jesus before burying them in shallow graves spread across his land. He was arrested after police raided the property earlier this month, and he remains in police custody pending a court appearance.

Interior minister Kithure Kindiki said the security team will “upscale search and rescue missions to save as many lives as possible”. “The entire 800-acre (320-hectare) parcel of land that is part of the Shakahola ranch is hereby declared a disturbed area and an operation zone,” Kindiki said while visiting the area.

The minister said there would be a turning point on how the country handles threats caused by religious extremism and was looking into another suspected cult in the same county.

“We have cast the net wider to another religious organisation here in Kilifi. We have opened a formal inquiry on this religious group and we are getting crucial leads that perhaps [this] is a tip of the iceberg,” Kindiki said.

The teams digging at the site have found decomposed bodies buried in mass and single graves marked with a cross.

Some living in mudwalled houses inside the ranch have fled ahead of rescue teams, and it is mostly those who cannot walk or talk who have been rescued so far.

A rescued follower (R) from the forest is supported by a volunteer. Photograph: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images

The Mombasa-based Muslims for Human Rights Group called on the government “to consider the option of using aerial surveillance by use of helicopters to rescue more people and make the process quicker”.

The autopsies on the bodies are set to begin on Thursday with local media reporting that government morgues in Kilifi are filled to capacity.

It is Kenya’s worst recorded case of alleged “cult” deaths.

The pastor had been arrested twice before – in 2019 and March this year – in relation to the deaths of children. Each time, he was released on bond, and both cases are still proceeding through the court system.