A suspected Kenya cult leader has appeared in court charged with the deaths of more than 400 people, including 191 children.
Doomsday pastor Paul Mackenzie, who founded the Good News International Church in the early 2000s, stands accused of convincing hundreds of people to starve themselves to death in order to “get to heaven”, according to one former member of his cult.
Alongside dozens of his surviving followers, the cult leader appeared in court on Wednesday charged with murder and terrorism, as well as “subjecting a child to torture”.
A lawyer for Mackenzie has claimed the self-styled pastor is cooperating with the investigation but says the cult leader denies the charges.
Appearing in a white-and-blue-striped polo shirt on Wednesday, Mackenzie sat largely expressionless alongside his fellow defendants as High Court Judge Mugure Thande immediately ordered he and 30 other defendants undergo mental health assessments. They will return to court on 6 February.
More than 90 defendants were arrested last April after police rescued 15 emaciated church members from a remote area known as Shakahola Forest, in the coastal county of Kilifi, where Mackenzie was believed to have instructed his followers to stay.
At least 429 bodies have since been found in the area and prosecutors have had to repeatedly ask the court in Kilifi, southwestern Kenya, for permission to keep holding the defendants while they search for more bodies.
Identifying the corpses is also proving difficult. According to the prosecution’s charge sheet, the remains of 180 of the 191 dead children are yet to be identified, causing further delays.
Last week, Principal Magistrate Yousuf Shikanda declined the prosecution’s latest request to hold the suspects for an additional 60 days, saying the prosecutors had been given enough time to complete the investigation.
They reacted by announcing they had enough evidence to charge Mackenzie and his followers, ending months of discord between the court and investigators.
Kenya’s top prosecutor on Monday then revealed that 95 people would be charged with murder, cruelty, child torture and other crimes.
People with knowledge of the cult’s activities have said that Mackenzie planned the mass starvation in three phases, beginning with children, then women and young men, and finally the remaining men.
A former taxi driver, Mackenzie founded his Good News International Church in 2003. He continually attracted police attention with his claims that children should not go to school and arguing that medical treatments, such as vaccinations, were satanic.
The cult leader was first arrested in 2017 – then again in 2018 – after claiming that education was “not recognised in the Bible”.
In December last year, he was convicted in a separate case of producing and distributing films without a licence and sentenced to 12 months in jail.