Nine months have passed since the discovery of the first bodies in the Shakahola forest in Kenya. For weeks, between April and June 2023, dozens and then hundreds of corpses of adults and children were exhumed from the undergrowth. A massacre for which the main architect, the self-proclaimed pastor Paul Mackenzie, will have to answer from Thursday January 25 before the Mombasa court. The evangelical guru, arrested on April 14, 2023, and 94 of his co-defendants are charged in three separate proceedings with child cruelty, manslaughter and terrorism.

What Kenyan Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki called “the worst security breach in the country’s history” left at least 429 victims, all followers of the International Church of the Good News, dead. following an “extreme fast” imposed by Paul Mackenzie. Even today, more than 500 individuals, members of the sect based in the coastal town of Malindi, remain missing.

It is not one but three trials that Paul Mackenzie and certain members of the sect will have to face. The 95 suspects, charged in particular for the murder of 191 minors, will first appear on Thursday before the Tononoka court, in Mombasa, for “subjection of a child to torture” and “cruelty on a child”. Charges to which they plead not guilty.

Vitriolic sermons

Paul Mackenzie, for whom the end of the world was to occur in June 2023, in January of the same year pushed the members of his sect to starve to “meet Jesus”. Children first. Then women and men. Traces of strangulation and suffocation were found on some corpses during autopsies. Almost a year after the events, only 34 people – including 11 children – could be identified, due to the advanced state of decomposition of the bodies, which are still in the Malindi morgue today.

The self-proclaimed pastor is also accused of “violating a child’s right to education.” In his vitriolic sermons, the guru persuaded his followers to take their children out of school, burn their identity papers and no longer seek treatment in hospitals. This was the first step to attract them later to the Shakahola forest, abandoned undergrowth, far from prying eyes.

Uncharismatic in appearance, Paul Mackenzie turned into a captivating speaker in his international Church of the good news, according to the former faithful that Le Monde met. True to himself, he appeared laughing, a bit provocative during his first appearance in court in May 2023, joking with the soldiers, magistrates and journalists gathered in the courtroom.

“False pastors”

The long wait in the corridors of Mombasa prison – eight months – seems to have undermined his joviality. Tuesday January 23, during his indictment for 238 cases of involuntary homicide, he even dozed off while reading the 500 pages of the investigation file, which lasted almost five hours. The 52-year-old man wears a serious face, a blank look, as if stunned by the scale of the charges against him. The Malindi court requested a psychiatric assessment before he appeared in this case in February.

The last procedure concerns acts of terrorism. On January 18, a Mombasa court charged him with “facilitating the commission of a terrorist act,” “possessing an article relating to an offense under the Prevention of Terrorism Act,” “participating in organized criminal activity” and “radicalization.” Here too, Paul Mackenzie and his associates plead not guilty.

Kenyan President William Ruto used this term in 2023 when reacting to the first macabre discoveries of bodies in the sands of Shakahola: “Terrorists use religion to promote their heinous acts. Mackenzie and all other terrorists and criminals do not belong to any religion, they belong in prison and that is where they should languish. »

The administration of William Ruto had also promised greater firmness towards sects and set up a commission to regulate the thousands of evangelical churches which are burgeoning in Kenya. As the trial of the most controversial of the “false pastors” begins, the Kenyan government has still not formulated new political avenues to fight against sects.