A Kenyan televangelist was arrested on last week after reports of the “mass killing of his followers”, the interior minister said, as authorities investigated scores of other deaths linked to a religious cult from the same region.
As news of pastor Ezekiel Odero’s detention spread, officials said the death toll had now reached 103 in the separate cult investigation that has shocked the nation and prompted calls for a crackdown on religious fringe groups.
Odero, dressed in white robes and carrying a thick black book, did not respond to reporters’ questions as he was escorted into a police station by a uniformed officer. Reuters could not contact any lawyer representing him.
Officials had evacuated scores of people who had been “holed up” in Odero’s New Life Prayer Centre and Church in the small southeastern town of Mavueni on the Indian Ocean coast, minister Kithure Kindiki wrote on Twitter.
Odero was “being processed to face criminal charges related to mass killing of his followers,” Kindiki added, without going into details on how many people had died. He made no comment on whether the cases were linked.
Odero’s arrest was connected to “allegations of deaths that have been occurring at his premises and reported in various morgues or institutions,” regional official Rhoda Onyancha told reporters.
The town of Mavueni is about 66 km (40 miles) from the Shakahola forest where cult leader Paul Mackenzie is accused of ordering his followers to starve themselves to death so they would be the first to go to heaven ahead of what he predicted would be the end of the world on April 15.
Mackenzie has been in police custody since April 14 and has made no public comment about the charges.
Since Friday, investigators have unearthed the bodies of 95 members of his self-proclaimed Good News International Church from shallow graves in the forest, and a further eight were found alive and emaciated but later died.
The death toll, already one of the worst in the recent history of cult-related tragedies, is expected to rise further as the Kenyan Red Cross says more than 300 people are missing.
Reuters spoke to two lawyers acting for Mackenzie, but both declined to comment on the accusations against him, saying they had not had enough time with their client since the discovery of the mass graves to take proper instructions from him.
Some Kenyan lawmakers have criticised the security services for missing opportunities to prevent the mass deaths in the Shakahola forest after it emerged that Mackenzie had been arrested last month on suspicion of the murder of two children by starvation and suffocation, then released on bail.
A disciplinary body was examining the records to establish whether there was any misconduct by judicial officers and staff who handled the matter, the Kenyan judiciary said in a statement.
Mackenzie had previously been arrested on several occasions dating back to 2017, in connection with a range of offences including child neglect and radicalisation, the statement said. He was acquitted of some charges while others were either dropped or not pursued, it said, for reasons that were not explained.