The government had a hard time yesterday explaining why the Shakahola deaths went undetected for months.
Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithure Kindiki instead focused on the tough charges likely to be preferred against pastor Paul Makenzi of Good News International Church and his accomplices.
Prof Kindiki spoke when he toured the 800-acre land in Kilifi County yesterday where detectives exhumed 16 bodies from shallow graves, raising the death toll to 89.
Six people were also rescued, bringing the number of those who have so far survived the deadly fast to 34.
The Cabinet secretary said that Shakahola is isolated and forested and there were no village elders or chiefs living there even as police said they are holding a man suspected to be one of the leaders of the cult.
The CS explained that the area’s remoteness meant it could not be easily accessed by many people hence allowing the victims of Makenzi’s religious ideology to starve to death unnoticed.
Kindiki said he suspected that Makenzi’s followers could not report what was happening inside the forest for fear of possible dire consequences.
“The security agencies did their job and acted on the intelligence. The reason it took long to notice was because of the vastness of the 800-acre land and again the village elder was living on the other side of the road and he couldn’t notice the behaviour because the followers were very secretive,” Kindiki said.
The vast farm is relocated about 10 kilometres from the Malindi-Sala Gate road, and 20 kilometres from the nearest trading centre at Baolala.
The road to the farm is narrow and rough with few people living in the area. One could only see a few charcoal burners and herdsmen during a drive to the farm where Makenzi has established Bethlehem, Nazareth and Judea ‘villages’ and named his aides ‘disciples’.
Detectives have only dug up one grave site and it is believed many more bodies will be retrieved in coming days.
The Kenya Red Cross Society and human rights groups believe many more people could be still starving on the vast land.
Yesterday, Kindiki dismissed leaders who have faulted the security agencies over the Shakahola deaths.
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He said Makenzi will be charged with genocide, terrorism and radicalisation, among other counts.
“Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is now part of the laws of Kenya by virtue of Article 25 of the Constitution, which transfers the definition elements and punishment of genocide into local crimes and is very easy to fit Makenzi’s behaviour to the crimes of genocide,” said Kindiki.
Case for regulation
The CS was accompanied by Coast Regional Commissioner Rhoda Onyancha and Kilifi deputy Governor Flora Chibule, among other local leaders.
Kindiki said that religious extremism was “worse than terrorism and one of the greatest threats to the country”.
He assured that government will come up with laws to regulate churches with the help of christian organisations.
Kindiki said the Director of Criminal Investigation (DCI) and other intelligence agencies are exploring all the legal options available to ensure pastors preaching radical teachings are punished.
“I’m convinced beyond doubt that a case can be built for charging Makenzi and all his accomplices who dug graves of the victims with the crime of genocide under international and Kenyan law,” said Kindiki.
On Monday, Director of Public Prosecution Noordin Haji said Makenzi could be charges with radicalisation and religious extremism. Haji revealed that the matter could be moved from Malindi to the Mombasa Law Courts to avoid conflict of interest.
Women and children top the number of bodies exhumed. Autopsy of the 89 bodies dug up from Shakahola will start on Thursday.
The CS revealed that other religious organisations in Malindi linked to Makenzi are under investigation over the deaths.
“We have widened the net to net all associates of Makenzi. We have opened a formal inquiry on one of the religious organisations also based here in Malindi and we have already gotten crucial leads that perhaps what is happening here is just a tip of the ice berg,” he said.
Kindiki said the government was assembling a multi- agency search and rescue team to scale up rescue operations in Shakahola Forest.
The team will comprise of security agencies and other partners who will try to save the lives of victims who are still fasting in the forest
“We are shocked by the discovery of serious crimes against humanity and the government will make sure that the perpetrator pay,” he said.
Kindiki said that what happened was a clear misuse of the fundamental right of freedom of worship, which is guaranteed by the law.
He said use of the Bible to cause a massacre cannot be tolerated under any law on earth.
“Those who urged others to fast and die were eating and drinking; telling people to fast and meet their creator while Jesus fed the hungry have a date with destiny,” he warned.
“We don’t expect Makenzi will get out of jail for the rest of his life,” he added.
Kenya Red Cross Society estimated that about 112 people are still missing as more families have emerged to look for their loved ones.
Yesterday, police said the man who was arrested was identified as Pastor Zablon wa Yesu. He was found reading a Bible in the bushes on Monday.
According to police, Zablon said he was not fasting “because he needed the energy to perform God’s work.”
Police sources suspect Zablon was among men who aided in the burial of those forced to fast to death.
“Police officers are still investigating his involvement in the mass killings,” said the source.
Well-built men are suspected to have aided in watching over those fasting to death and burying them in shallow graves.
Police have identified 58 grave sites where they hope to exhume more bodies in the operation that started five days ago.
Meanwhile, Haki Africa Executive Director Hussein Khalid has urged the government to focus more on saving lives of those believed to be still alive in the forest as they exhume the bodies.
“We are losing lives as the days go by. The government should deploy low-flying helicopters and the Kenya Wildlife Services personnel to save more lives,” said Mr Khalid at Shakahola.
Christian Nyambane from Kakamega has been communicating with his sister who is believed to be still stuck inside the forest waiting to be rescued.
“She called me yesterday and she was weak. She said she has three days to live,” said Nyambane.
He has reported the matter to the security officers who are yet to locate her.