Two pastors based in coastal Kenya have appeared in court over the deaths at least 110 of their congregants, many of whom are believed to have starved to death.
Self-proclaimed pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, who set up the Good News International Church in 2003 and is accused of inciting followers to starve to death "to meet Jesus", appeared in the dock in Malindi.
He will face terrorism charges over the deaths of more than 100 people found buried in what has been dubbed the "Shakahola forest massacre," prosecutors said.
The small courtroom was packed with relatives of victims as Mackenzie, dressed in a pink and black jacket and brown trousers, was brought in by about half a dozen police officers along with eight other defendants.
After a brief hearing, the case was moved to the high court in Kenya's second-largest city of Mombasa, where the suspects will face terrorism charges, prosecutor Vivian Kambaga told AFP.
"There is a court (in Mombasa) that is gazetted to handle cases under the prevention of terrorism act," Kambaga told a magistrate during the hearing in Malindi, asking for the case to be moved to the high court.
More than 100 bodies have been exhumed from dozens of mass graves on his property within Kilifi County. Children are believed to be among the dead, but it is unclear how many, as some of the bodies are in poor condition.
Autopsies on 40 of the bodies found on Mackenzie’s property revealed that the causes of death ranged from starvation to strangulation and suffocation.
The higher court has authorized Mackenzie’s detention until Friday, when an application to hold him for a further 30 days pending terrorism investigations will be heard.
His wife, Rhoda Maweu, was arrested on Monday night from a hideout in the coastal town of Mtwapa after weeks on the run.
Mackenzie past with the police
Mackenzie had been charged in 2017 over the deaths of children at his church. In 2019, he closed the church and moved to a ranch in a forested area of Kilifi county, where hundreds of families built houses.
One of his followers told The Associated Press that it was at this time that a plan to starve till death in order to meet Jesus was hatched and his followers started dying.
Human rights groups had been sounding the alarm for months until April, when police began investigating and mass graves were discovered at the ranch.
Currently, police are conducting search and rescue missions on the 800-acre (325 hectares) property and at an even bigger ranch nearby. So far, 48 people have been rescued alive and 24 arrests made, according to Coast Regional Commissioner Rhoda Onyancha.
The operation to dig for more bodies has stalled even as the government announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the area and redeployed all senior police commanders to pave the way for a thorough probe.
Ezekiel Odero at the dock
Pastor Ezekiel Odero, whose church is in the same county as Mackenzie’s, has also appeared in court. He will remain in custody for a further two days as investigations continue.
Odero was arrested last week in connection to the deaths of dozens of his congregants at his megachurch, which draws thousands of people from across the country.
He is also being investigated for his links to Mackenzie.
Prosecutors have linked Odero and Mackenzie, saying in court documents that they share a "history of business investments" including a television station used to pass "radicalised messages" to followers.
After Mackenzie closed his church in 2019, Odero bought a television channel from him.
In his filing to the court, Odero said he wanted to "strongly disassociate" himself from Mackenzie and disagreed with his teachings.
His followers trouped in large numbers outside the court Tuesday, praying for his release.