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KEN | May 15, 2023

‘We erred’: Kenyan authorities should have prevented cult deaths, president says

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Forensic experts and homicide detectives from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), gather to exhume bodies of suspected followers of a Christian cult named as “Good News International Church”, who believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves to death, in Shakahola forest of Kilifi county, Kenya May 9, 2023. (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)

NAIROBI (Reuters)

Kenyan government agencies should have been able to prevent the deaths by starvation of more than 200 members of a cult in the country’s coastal region, said President William Ruto, adding he took responsibility for the disaster.

Authorities accuse Paul Mackenzie, leader of the Good News International Church, of ordering his followers to starve themselves and their children to death so they could go to heaven before the end of the world.

The death toll so far stands at 201, making it one of the worst cult-related disasters in recent history.

Of the 201, eight people died from emaciation after being rescued, while the rest have been exhumed mostly from mass graves in Shakahola Forest in Kilifi County in the country’s southeast.

Given the presence of government agencies in the area, including police, intelligence services and the local administration, Mackenzie’s activities should not have gone unnoticed, Ruto said.

“I am not taking it lightly. I am taking responsibility that as president this should not have happened. And certainly, some people who are responsible for this failure on the part of government will have to give an account,” he said in a joint interview with Kenyan news outlets late on Sunday.

“It should not have happened when we have all the agencies. We have our intelligence, we have our CID (Criminal Investigations Department), we have chiefs and all the other people in the whole of that ecosystem.”

Mackenzie was arrested earlier this year on suspicion of the murder of two children by starvation and suffocation, but was then released on bail.

Relatives of his adherents say that after Mackenzie was freed he returned to Shakahola forest and moved forward his predicted date for the end of the world from August to April 15.

Paul Mackenzie, 50, a Kenyan cult leader accused of ordering his followers, who were members of the Good News International Church, to starve themselves to death in Shakahola forest, talks to a man from a steel-grilled dock at the Shanzu Law Courts, in Mombasa, Kenya May 10, 2023. (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)

Mackenzie surrendered to police on April 14 after police raided the forest where the church was based, rescuing 15 people who had been starving themselves.

Last week, a court denied Mackenzie bail. He has not yet been required to enter a plea after handing himself over to police last month.

George Kariuki, a lawyer representing Mackenzie, has said the self-styled pastor was cooperating with the investigation.

Ten days ago, Ruto appointed a commission of inquiry into the deaths in Shakahola, and another task force to review regulations governing religious organisations.

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