(NEW YORK) — An ongoing investigation into a suspected religious cult in southeastern Kenya whose followers were allegedly told to starve themselves has led to the discovery of dozens of bodies.
The death toll reached 90 on Tuesday after Kenyan police exhumed more remains from mass graves on an 800-acre forest in the village of Shakahola, near the coastal town of Malindi.
“This is as of now,” Kenyan Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said during a press conference on Tuesday while visiting the site. “The process continues for the rest of the day and we don’t know how many more graves, how many more bodies we are likely to discover.”
More than 200 people have been reported missing in the area in the wake of the grim findings, according to a press release from the Kenya Red Cross Society.
Most of the dead have been recovered from shallow graves, while some were found alive but later died. Another 34 people who were rescued from the property have survived, Kindiki said.
The victims are all believed to be followers of Paul Nthenge Mackenzie and his self-proclaimed Good News International Church. Mackenzie, who owns the land, is accused of luring his followers there and instructing them to “observe fasting till death in order to meet their maker,” according to a statement from Kenya’s Inspector General of Police Japhet Koome.
Mackenzie surrendered to police on April 14 after they raided his property, Koome said. He remains in custody.
Mackenzie has a criminal record dating back to 2017. He was arrested last month in connection with the starvation deaths of two children but he was subsequently released on bail of 10,000 Kenyan shillings (about $75), according to Koome.
A preliminary probe indicates that Mackenzie and other potential suspects could be charged with murder and terrorism, according to a press release from Kenya’s Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, which described the scene in Shakahola as “shocking to the human conscience.”
Meanwhile, the interior minister has hinted at the possibility of charging Mackenzie with genocide. He said investigators are also looking into another suspected cult in the same county.
“We have cast the net wider to another religious organization here in Kilifi,” Kindiki told reporters on Tuesday. “We have opened a formal inquiry on this religious group and we are getting crucial leads that perhaps what was being done by Mackenzie is a tip of the iceberg.”
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