The death toll among followers of a Kenyan cult who believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves has risen to 89, Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said on Tuesday, calling for the group’s leader to spend the rest of his life in prison.
The toll has steadily risen in recent days as authorities have carried out exhumations of mass graves found in an 800-acre area of the Shakahola forest in eastern Kenya where the self-proclaimed Good News International Church was based.
Most of the dead were recovered from shallow graves, while a small number were found alive and emaciated but later died.
“Over and above the figure that was given yesterday at 73, we have been able to discover until this hour another 16 bodies, bringing the total to 89,” Kindiki told reporters at the scene.
News videos showed mud huts with palm thatched roofs, scattered among clusters of thorn trees and scrub bushes.
Footage aired on privately-owned Citizen Television showed one of those rescued, an emaciated woman, shouting at the rescuers, asking them to kill her instead.
Exhumation sites were cordoned off and teams of men, some wearing white protective overalls and masks, could be seen carrying away corpses wrapped in blue and white body bags.
Kindiki said three more people had been rescued alive, bringing the total number of survivors found so far to 34.
“We pray that God will help them to go through the trauma, to help them recover and tell the story of how one time a fellow Kenyan, a fellow human, decided to hurt so many people, heartlessly, hiding under the Holy Scriptures,” he said.
The death toll could rise further. The Kenyan Red Cross said more than 200 people had been reported as missing to a tracing and counselling desk it has set up at a local hospital.
The cult’s leader, Paul Mackenzie, was arrested on April 14 following a tip-off and another 14 cult members are in custody, according to police. Kenyan media have reported that Mackenzie is refusing food and water.
“We do not expect that Mr. Mackenzie will get out of jail for the rest of his life,” said Kindiki, adding that anyone who assisted him by digging graves or disposing of bodies should also face the harshest penalties under the law.
Reuters was not able to reach any lawyer or representative for Mackenzie.
Kenya’s Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions said preliminary investigations showed that the suspects might have committed crimes including murder, radicalization and threatening public safety.
“The government admits that this should not have happened,” said Kindiki, describing events in the Shakahola forest as a turning point in the threat posed by religious extremism.
“But the government which I represent here wants to assure the nation of Kenya that nothing like this again will happen (again). It won’t happen.”