(Al Jazeera) Kenyan police have recovered 58 bodies, mostly from mass graves in a forest in eastern Kenya, thought to be followers of a Christian cult who believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves, the country’s police chief said on Monday.
The death toll, which has repeatedly risen as exhumations have been carried out, could rise further. The Kenyan Red Cross said 112 people have been reported missing to a tracing and counselling desk it has set up at a local hospital.
Followers of the self-proclaimed Good News International Church had been living in several secluded settlements in an 800-acre (324-hectare) area within the Shakahola Forest.
Kenya’s police chief Japhet Koome, visiting the scene, said the deceased included 50 people found in mass graves as well as eight who were found alive and emaciated but later died.
He added that 29 survivors had been rescued and police were still searching for potential others.
“Forensic investigators, homicide detectives, other police officers as well as some government pathologists are here with us conducting investigations and carrying out exhumations,” said Koome in remarks broadcast on Kenyan television.
The cult’s leader, Paul Mackenzie, was arrested on April 14 following a tip-off that suggested the existence of shallow graves containing the bodies of at least 31 of his followers. Koome said 14 other cult members were in police custody.
Mackenzie was arraigned on April 15 at Malindi Law Courts, where the judge gave police 14 days to conduct investigations while he was kept in detention. Kenyan media have reported that he is refusing food and water.
There has been no comment from any representative for Mackenzie so far.
President William Ruto said Mackenzie’s teachings were contrary to any authentic religion.
“Mr Mackenzie … pretends and postures as a pastor when in fact he is a terrible criminal,” said Ruto, who was delivering a speech at an unrelated public event just outside Nairobi.
He said he had instructed relevant agencies to get to the root cause of what had happened and to tackle “people who want to use religion to advance weird, unacceptable ideology in the Republic of Kenya that is causing unnecessary loss of life”.
Interior Minister Kindiki said in his tweet on Sunday that the entire forest was sealed off by police and had been declared “a scene of crime”.
In his tweet, the minister said the incident was “the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship”.
“While the State remains respectful of religious freedom”, those responsible should face “severe punishment”, he said. There would have to be “tighter regulation [including self-regulation] of every church, mosque, temple or synagogue going forward”, he added.
Mackenzie had been arrested twice before, in 2019 and in March of this year, concerning the deaths of children. Each time, he was released on bond, and both cases are still proceeding through the court.