Johannesburg — The leader of a Kenyan cult pleaded not guilty Tuesday to the murder of 191 children whose bodies were found in mass graves in a forest. Cult leader and self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie was formally charged with the murders on Tuesday along with 29 other defendants, all of whom appeared carefree as they took the dock to stand trial over what many Kenyans have called.
Mackenzie, who was apprehended in April, preached about a coming doomsday, telling his followers that through starvation, they would be saved and meet Jesus Christ. He and his co-defendants have all denied any responsibility for the deaths of more than 400 followers, all of whom were found in mass graves in Kenya‘s Shakahola Forest.
The accused slowly sauntered off a black bus outside the court in the town of Malindi on Tuesday morning, handcuffed together in small groups, and walked into the courtroom, taking seats in two rows. They all looked relaxed in the packed court as camera flashes captured their faces.
Mackenzie sat among them in a nondescript striped shirt, his dark hair a little peppered with gray.
He was the founder and leader of what he called the Good News International Ministry. Followers have told their families and officials they believed Mackenzie when he preached that starvation was the path to salvation. 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.
Investigators, who have been working for months already, have found many of these graves and believe there are many more still to be discovered in the Shakahola Forest. State pathologists have said many of the exhumed victims died of starvation, but some showed signs of strangulation.
The court proceedings had been delayed after a judge ordered Mackenzie and the other suspects to undergo mandatory mental health checks before being charged. A 31st suspect was deemed unfit to stand trial.
The prosecutor’s office had said earlier that it would be charging 95 people with various crimes, including murder, manslaughter, terrorism and torture, including the 191 counts of child murder.
Investigators and forensic experts continue to shovel the red earth in the Shakahola Forest looking for remains of those still missing. Many families still cling to hope that the soil will yield remains, or at least clues to their loved ones’ fate.
Investigators have said Mackenzie was a taxi driver in the early 2000s, before he created the Good News International Ministry. Locals have said he quickly drew followers with fiery sermons at his church on the coast in Malindi, then from across Kenya with his online presence.
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.”
As his following grew, authorities became increasingly aware of Mackenzie’s preaching and in 2018 he was arrested over remarks critical of the government. They never prosecuted him then and largely left him alone, unaware of the horrors to come.
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.
Several emaciated children escaped from the forest and locals alerted the authorities. Police found many followers close to death and took those still alive to nearby hospitals, where medical staff tried to feed the group. Many refused food, however, and as the situation grew more dire, the director of public prosecutions charged almost 65 people with attempted suicide for refusing to eat.
Psychiatrists who have been brought in to work with the survivors say it will be a long and difficult road to deprogram many of Mackenzie’s followers, who still believe what he preached.