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Autopsies on corpses linked to Kenya starvation cult reveal missing organs; 133 confirmed dead

Autopsies on corpses found in mass graves linked to a Kenyan cult have revealed missing organs and raised suspicions of forced harvesting, investigators said Tuesday as another 21 bodies were found. A total of 133 people have so far been confirmed dead in the so-called "Shakahola forest massacre" since the discovery of mass graves last month shocked the deeply religious Christian-majority country.

Police believe most of the bodies found near Malindi on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast were followers of self-styled pastor Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, who is accused of ordering them to starve to death "to meet Jesus."

While starvation appears to be the main cause of death, some of the victims -- including children -- were strangled, beaten, or suffocated, according to chief government pathologist Johansen Oduor.

Investigators said Tuesday they believed more bodies would be found in coming days.

"We have 21 bodies exhumed today from nine graves, and this exercise will continue tomorrow," said regional commissioner Rhoda Onyancha. The latest exhumations took the overall toll to 133, she added.

Workers take shelter while digging the ground to exume bodies from the mass-grave site in Shakahola, outside the coastal town of Malindi, on April 25, 2023.  YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Court documents filed on Monday said some of the corpses had their organs removed, with police alleging the suspects were engaged in forced harvesting of body parts.

"Post mortem reports have established missing organs in some of the bodies of victims who have been exhumed," chief inspector Martin Munene said in an affidavit filed to a Nairobi court.

It is "believed that trade on human body organs has been well coordinated involving several players," he said, giving no details about the suspected trafficking.

Munene said Ezekiel Odero, a high-profile televangelist who was arrested last month in connection with the same case and granted bail on Thursday, had received "huge cash transactions," allegedly from Mackenzie's followers who sold their property at the cult leader's bidding.

The Nairobi court ordered the authorities to freeze more than 20 bank accounts belonging to Odero for 30 days.

Exhumations resumed on Tuesday after being suspended last week because of bad weather.

"We have resumed the exhumation exercise because we believe that there are more bodies inside this place," said Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki, who visited the site on Tuesday. "What we have here in Shakahola is one of the worst tragedies our country has ever known."

Kenya Cult Deaths
The exhumed bodies of victims of a religious cult are laid out in the village of Shakahola, near the coastal city of Malindi, in southern Kenya Sunday, April 23, 2023.  / AP

A multi-agency team was exhuming at least 20 mass graves believed to contain "several victims," he added.

"I am afraid that we have many more graves in this forest, and therefore it leads us to conclude that this was a highly organised crime."

Questions have been raised about how Mackenzie managed to evade law enforcement despite a history of extremism and previous legal cases.

The former taxi driver turned himself in on April 14 after police acting on a tip-off first entered Shakahola forest, where some 50 shallow mass graves have now been found.

Prosecutors are asking to hold the father of seven, who founded the Good News International Church in 2003, for another 90 days until investigations are completed.

Senior principal magistrate Yusuf Shikanda said he would rule on the request on Wednesday.

President William Ruto has vowed a crackdown on Kenya's homegrown religious movements in the aftermath of the saga, which has highlighted failed past efforts to regulate unscrupulous churches and cults.

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