Doomsday cult leader Paul Mackenzie goes on trial after deaths of over 400 followers in Kenya

The leader of a doomsday cult in Kenya went on trial on Monday on charges of terrorism over the deaths of more than 400 of his followers in a macabre case that shocked the world.

Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie appeared in a packed courtroom in the Indian Ocean port city of Mombasa along with 94 co-defendants.

Principle magistrate Leah Juma ordered the removal of journalists from the court shortly after the start of the hearing to enable a protected witness to take the stand on camera.

Mackenzie, who was arrested in April last year, is alleged to have incited his acolytes to starve to death in order to “meet Jesus” in one of the world’s worst cult-related massacres.

The father of seven and his co-accused pleaded not guilty to the charges of terrorism at a hearing in January.

The 55 men and 40 women also face charges of murder, manslaughter, as well as child torture and cruelty in separate cases.

The remains of more than 440 people have been unearthed so far in a remote wilderness inland from the Indian Ocean coastal town of Malindi, in a case that has been dubbed the “Shakahola forest massacre.”

Mortuary personnel pull a cart with the remains of a victim of a Kenyan starvation cult at the Malindi Sub-County Hospital Mortuary in Malindi on March 26, 2024. 

LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images

Autopsies have found that while starvation appeared to be the main cause of death, some of the victims — including children — were strangled, beaten, or suffocated. In February, Mackenzie pleaded not guilty to the murder of 191 children whose bodies were found in mass graves. 

Previous court documents also said that some of the bodies had had their organs removed.

“Worst breach of security in the history of our country”

Prosecutors said in a statement that they planned to call about 90 witnesses to testify as well as show physical and digital evidence.

“The prosecution will present evidence to illustrate that the accused did not function merely as a fringe group, but rather as a well-organized criminal enterprise operating under the guise of a church under the leadership of (Mackenzie),” the statement said.

Mackenzie, a former taxi driver, turned himself in after police first entered Shakahola forest in April last year and found the bodies of four people and several other starving people.

The police action came after a relative of one of the victims received a tip-off from a former member of Mackenzie’s Good News International Church about grisly happenings in Shakahola forest.

Family members have said Mackenzie told his followers to join him in the Shakahola forest, where he offered them parcels of land for less than $100. Court documents allege that in early 2023, Mackenzie told his followers in the forest that the end of the world was coming and they must prepare through extreme hunger.

He allegedly split members into smaller groups assigned biblical names. It’s believed these smaller groups died together and were buried together in mass graves.

Paul Mackenzie, right, leader of an alleged starvation cult accused of convincing hundreds of followers to starve themselves to death, including children, is seen at the Shanzu Court in Mombasa, Kenya, Aug. 10, 2023.
Paul Mackenzie, right, leader of an alleged starvation cult accused of convincing hundreds of followers to starve themselves to death, including children, is seen at the Shanzu Court in Mombasa, Kenya, Aug. 10, 2023.

Andrew Kasuku/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Mackenzie had set up the church in 2003, but closed it in 2019 and moved to the sleepy town of Shakahola.

In March this year, the authorities began releasing some victims’ bodies to distraught relatives after months of painstaking work to identify them using DNA.

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

Several surviving members of the group have told family members that what he preached would often come true, citing as an example his prediction that “a great virus” would come, just before COVID-19 hit the country. As people struggled during the pandemic, financially and medically, Mackenzie preached about leaving the difficulties of life behind and “turning to salvation.”

Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki last year accused Kenyan police of laxity in investigating the initial reports of starvation.

“The Shakahola massacre is the worst breach of security in the history of our country,” he told a senate committee hearing, vowing to “relentlessly push for legal reforms to tame rogue preachers.”

Reports by the Kenyan senate and a state-funded human rights watchdog have said the authorities could have prevented the deaths.

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) in March criticized security officers in Malindi for “gross abdication of duty and negligence.”

The horrific saga has seen President William Ruto vow to intervene in Kenya’s homegrown religious movements.

“What we are seeing … is akin to terrorism,” Ruto said last year. “Mr. Makenzi … pretends and postures as a pastor when in fact he is a terrible criminal.”

In largely Christian Kenya, it has also thrown a spotlight on failed efforts to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults that have dabbled in criminality.

In 2022, the body of a British woman who died at the house of a different cult leader while on holiday in Kenya was exhumed, according to the family’s lawyer. Luftunisa Kwandwalla, 44, was visiting the coastal city of Mombasa when she died in August 2020 and was buried a day later, but her family has claimed foul play.

Sarah Carter contributed to this report.

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