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Stalled case of pastor in cult-like deaths exposes cracks in justice system

 Malindi Pastor Paul Mackenzi and his late wife Joyce Mwikamba when they were charged with indiscrimination and incitement. [File, standard]

The death of six parishioners at Shakahola village in Malindi has exposed the criminal justice system that has in the past failed to tame 'pastor' Paul Nthenge Makenzi's incendiary sermons.

Police say the six starved to death after Makenzi instructed them to fast until they see "Jesus Christ". He is being held at the Malindi Police Station over the deaths.

On Saturday, Malindi Assistant County Commissioner Angela Wanyama said she led a team of security officers on a fact-finding mission to unravel Makenzi's ideology.

"From our tour, it is clear that the pastor has brainwashed residents against school and hospital. We have heard from them and it is clear that they believe what he preaches," she said.

Charles Macharia, the Malindi DCI officer, said the planned operation to excavate the suspected mass grave on Makenzi's farm was postponed due to logistics issues.

The police intend to search Makenzi's property in Shakahola before today's arraignment. They believe there is a mass grave for other worshippers who died from starvation.

According to other police sources, some of those rescued have assisted investigators. They told the detectives that everyone who was supposed to "go to heaven" had to die by August.

A police source said one victim told them the pastor said those who did not die by August would face "the most painful death in the world".

Refusing to eat

"It's serious that some patients refused to eat at the hospital, forcing us to transport them to police cells. We intend to charge them with attempted suicide," said an officer.

Makenzi, who worked as a taxi driver in Malindi from 1997 to 2003, was charged four times for his incendiary sermons but acquitted each time due to a lack of evidence.

He was arrested in 2017 alongside 35 primary, secondary, and university students whom police said he had persuaded to discontinue their studies because it was ungodly.

"He may have committed a crime while at work, but no compelling evidence has been presented against him. It's been a comedy," a lawyer said.

The lawyer said in 2019, Makenzi and his late wife Joyce Mwikamba were charged with incitement.

That year, Makenzi closed his church and his TV channel, "Star," and relocated to Shakahola to farm on his 10-acre plot.

 Pastor Paul Makenzi of Good News International Church under arrest. He is being held at the Malindi Police Station over the deaths. [Marion Kithi, Standard]

After he relocated, the majority of his followers followed him to the dusty village. One of his pastors established a church in Magirime but it was closed down by the police.

Arrested in March

"He was arrested again in mid-March after two boys died of starvation, but the police did not charge him. Their application to hold him pending investigations was denied," said the lawyer.

Most of Makenzi's children have not gone to school. He has children with three wives; two of them, including Mwikamba, died and were buried in the church compound.

"The church is on the land earmarked for the expansion of Malindi Airport. The wives were buried alongside each other in graves covered by a huge concrete slab," said another friend of Makenzi's.

He added: "It is a slab like the huge rock that covered Jesus's tomb. He plans to move the bodies once he is compensated by the Kenya Airports Authority (KAA)."

Lawyer Abubakar Yusuf who represented Sheikh Aboud Rogo and the late Abubakar Shariff said the justice system has over the years failed to tame crimes committed in the name of religion.

"Investigators cannot act because of public pressure and expect the court to convict preachers on flimsy grounds. Cases must be built on solid evidence," said Yusuf.

He said Makenzi can be charged with being an accessory to murder or manslaughter if the police get evidence to prove he asked his followers to fast to death.

On Friday, police retrieved the bodies of four people they believe died of starvation after the self-proclaimed spiritual leader told them to fast until they "met Jesus Christ."

Kamau, the Malindi DCI officer, said 15 severely malnourished worshippers from Makenzi's Good News International Church were rescued and taken to Malindi Sub-County Hospital.

 Some of the malnourished worshippers from Makenzi's Good News International Church who were rescued and taken to Malindi Sub-County Hospital. [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard]

Meanwhile, Makenzi who on Friday surrendered to the police in Malindi was still in custody on Saturday but the police are yet to decide what they will charge him with.

Hesitant police

On Friday, sources within the security circles said the police had been hesitant to arrest the pastor until they discovered the suspected mass graves, fearing he would be released by the courts as before.

The recent deaths took the total number of people who have died from starvation to six, following the deaths of two boys in mid-March. Police linked the deaths to Makenzi's summons.

Contrary to popular belief, the preacher does not prey on illiterate people. Former church members said some of his followers are learned people who quit their jobs after joining the church.

Makenzi is no stranger to controversy. He says he is the target of hostile propaganda from former co-workers and church members.

His rise began shortly after the opening of his church in Malindi in 2003. In 2019, he closed the church and said he had finished his evangelical work.

"He moved to Shakahola and bought 10 acres where he farms maize and beans through irrigation," said his former lawyer. He said one of his pastors opened a church in Magarini but it was closed down by the security team

In a recent interview, Makenzi denied having a church in Shakahola where people were allegedly starved to death.

The state accuses Makenzi of manipulating locals through distorted extreme religious doctrines and fear of the unknown in the pursuit of salvation, which has resulted in the deaths of many people.

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