Kenya starts autopsies of 'starvation cult' deaths

Forensic experts on Monday began autopsies of more than a hundred corpses found in mass graves linked to a Kenyan pastor accused of inciting his followers to starve to death.

May 1, 2023 - 15:23
Kenya starts autopsies of 'starvation cult' deaths
Kenyan government officials and pathologists wearing protective clothing stand by before the start of postmortem analysis on victims of the Shakahola massacre at the Malindi district funeral home, in Malindi on 1 May 2023. Picture: SIMON MAINA / AFP

MALINDI - Forensic experts on Monday began autopsies of more than a hundred corpses found in mass graves linked to a Kenyan pastor accused of inciting his followers to starve to death.

"Officially the process of post-mortem of the bodies starts immediately," Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki told reporters outside a hospital morgue in the coastal town of Malindi.

"We are here to witness a very critical stage," he said. "That process is expected to take roughly a week, all going well."

Investigators will also take DNA samples to help identification, though the full results may take months, the chief government pathologist, Johansen Oduor, said.

Mass graves in the nearby Shakahola forest have revealed scores of dead, most of them children.

But the death toll of 109, which includes a small number of people who were found alive but died on their way to hospital, is still provisional.

"The process of exhumation was temporarily stopped because the experts advised us (that) when it is raining, that process cannot continue," Kindiki said.

Paul Mackenzie Nthenge, a former taxi driver who created a Christian-based cult called the Good News International Church, is accused of telling followers that starvation offered a path to God.

But Kindiki said Friday that preliminary reports suggested "that some of the victims may not have died of starvation. There were other methods used, including hurting them."

The discovery of the bodies deeply shocked Kenya - an impact amplified last week by the announcement that a prominent televangelist would face charges over the "mass killing" of his supporters.

Ezekiel Odero, the flamboyant head of the New Life Prayer Centre and Church, who was arrested on Thursday, is suspected of crimes including murder, aiding suicide, abduction, radicalisation, crimes against humanity, child cruelty, fraud and money laundering.

Prosecutor Peter Kiprop said last week that there was "credible information" linking the bodies found in the forest to the deaths of several "innocent and vulnerable followers" of Odero.

Odero and Nthenge share a "history of business investments" including a television station that was used to pass "radicalised messages" to followers, Kiprop said in court documents.


The two pastors are currently in detention and are to appear in court in different towns on Tuesday.

Newly elected President William Ruto, in remarks on 24 April, said there was no difference between rogue cult leader and "terrorists."

"I have instructed the agencies responsible to take up the matter and to get to the root cause and to the bottom of the activities of... people who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology," he said.

More than 4,000 churches are registered in Christian-majority Kenya.

But past efforts to weed out crooks and charlatans through regulation have been thwarted by accusations that this would violate constitutional guarantees for freedom of religion.

"In the course of the week," Kindiki said, "the president (will) be announcing members of a presidential task force to deal with generally how we govern religious activities in our country and how we make sure we don't infringe on the sacred right of the freedom of worship, opinion and belief, but at the same time we don't allow criminals to misuse that right to hurt, kill, torture and starve people to death."