Kenyan police have uncovered dozens of bodies from graves linked to a Christian pastor, who is being investigated over allegations that he ordered his congregants to starve themselves, police and local media said.
The Inspector General of the Kenyan Police, Japhet Koome, told reporters that detectives and pathologists dug up 11 more bodies from a series of shallow graves on Monday, bringing the death toll to 58.
According to a statement from Mr Koome, many of the victims were said to have been members of the Good News International Church, a “suspected religious sect”. The small sect, based near the town of Malindi, is led by a pastor, Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, who was arrested this month.
Kenya President William Ruto called the allegations “related to terrorism” in a televised address on Monday. “Terrorists use religion to further their heinous acts,” he said.
Attempts to contact Mr Mackenzie or a lawyer representing him were not immediately successful.
Mr Mackenzie was arrested on April 14 after authorities rescued more than 15 people from his property, four of whom were in critical condition and died shortly afterwards, according to media reports.
He was charged a few days later by a judge in the Malindi Law Courts, who said the pastor would be detained for two weeks while the police carried out their investigation.
“The recent discoveries are still ongoing,” said an official from Kenya’s Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she was not allowed to speak in public. “So until the police are done and declare that they have exhausted the country and declare that there are no more bodies, the case will not be taken to court.”
Authorities approached Mr Mackenzie’s property after receiving a tip from residents about people starving on the land, said Charles Kamau, the chief of criminal investigation in Malindi.
“The information we received is that the people there were starving after being radicalized by a certain member of a church who told them that their work in this world was done and they should die and go see their creator,” he said. mr. Kamau. in an interview with Citizen TV following Mr Mackenzie’s arrest.
The death toll was expected to rise this week as investigators continued to search for bodies and survivors. Some who had already been found alive still refused to eat or drink water. At least 112 people have been reported missing, said the Red Crosshelping to track down the victims.
Videos captured from the crime scene show officers in hazardous materials suits dragging body bags and searching areas cordoned off with yellow tape.
Kenyan Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki called the find a “massacre”. posted a statement on Twitter on Sunday, adding that it exposed “the clearest abuse of the constitutionally enshrined human right to freedom of worship.”
Security teams had been deployed to cordon off 800 hectares of forest for the investigation, Mr Kindiki added in his post. A team of experts deployed by the National Police also consisted of forensic and homicide detectives.
Mr Mackenzie had also been arrested at the end of March, at the time in connection with the deaths of two children. In a statement released by Mr Koome on Monday, the children were “reportedly starving on instructions from Paul Mackenzie that they observe fasts until death to meet their maker.”
“We then called for an autopsy of the dead, but nothing came of it,” said Walid Sketty, 28, a member of Haki, a human rights organization that works to assist the victims.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Sketty that after the pastor’s arrest at the end of March, he and several colleagues had attempted to obtain the property of Mr. Mackenzie to visit. “We suspected there were others on the land and we wanted to see if there was anyone we could help,” he said, adding that he was turned away by a group of men with machetes.
“We now blame the government for a lack of intelligence,” Mr Sketty said. “This is a human rights issue: it is the duty of the state to ensure that their lives are not taken away – regardless of their beliefs or background.”
Simon Marks reporting contributed.