Suspect in Kenya cult deaths dies in custody after hunger strike

The dead suspect and two others who lie critically ill, embarked on a hunger strike after being detained in connection with the mass starvation exercise of followers of Kenyan cult.

A woman, one of the followers of a cult that has killed dozens bends as she sits next to Kenya Red Cross officials inside a car after being rescued by police in a forest in Shakahola, outskirts of Malindi town, Kenyan Coast
A follower of a cult that has killed hundreds, bends as she sits next to Kenya Red Cross officials inside a car after being rescued by police in a forest in Shakahola, outskirts of Malindi town, Kenyan Coast Tuesday, April 25, 2023 [AP Photo]

Nairobi, Kenya – One of the 30 suspects being held together with the Kenyan cult leader Paul Mackenzie over the deaths of more than 300 people who were told to starve themselves to death if they wanted to go to heaven, has died in custody.

The deceased had been in police custody for more than 60 days while the Kenyan criminal investigations investigators continued with the probe and exhumation of bodies around Shakahola forest on the outskirts of Malindi in coastal Kenya, where police first discovered bodies in April.

A prosecutor in the Mackenzie case, Jami Yamina, informed the Mombasa court on Wednesday that the deceased identified as Joseph Juma Buyuka was among the Mackenzie followers who had staged a 10-day hunger strike while in custody.

“The [Mackenzie] aide had declined to eat and drink while being held at Watamu Police Station,” Yamina told Al Jazeera. “He died two days ago. Complications were from hunger strike and starvation, but we will await a postmortem report.”

Buyuka reportedly died on Monday from hunger-related complications while undergoing treatment in a nearby Malindi Hospital.

The prosecutor added that the autopsy report would be presented to the court after the postmortem is conducted.

Two other suspects, Evans Sirya and Fredrick Karimi, who were also admitted on the same day, were still critically ill in the same hospital.

“We [the state] shall file a medical report on their progress with the court within a week. After the postmortem on Buyuka is concluded, we shall also produce the report,” he told the court.

Together with 15 other suspects, Buyuka appeared in court emaciated and unable to stand or walk. The investigating officer informed the court at the time that the suspects had staged a hunger strike.

In Kenya, suspects are held in cells at police stations until they are arraigned in court. Last week, the prosecution team asked the court that the sixteen suspects be moved from the police station cells to a government prison where they would be force-fed food. The request was granted.

When they appeared in court last week, Buyuka, Karimi, Sirya and two others promised the Shanzu Senior Principal Magistrate Yusuf Shikanda that they would resume eating and cooperate with the police, a court official told Al Jazeera anonymously.

On Wednesday, the judge asked the prosecutor to present a medical report of all the 30 suspects in custody today.

Death and rescue

So far, the death toll from the mass starvation episode has hit 336. At least 93 bodies were retrieved in the 10-day third phase of the exhumation exercise that started on June 6 and stopped on June 16.

Rescue of survivors and exhumation of the dead is continuing in phases. The morgues in the area have surpassed their capacity, prompting the postmortem and transfer of bodies in phases.

The third phase of the postmortem exercise on the bodies already exhumed from the vast 325-hectare (800-acre) Shakahola forest was expected to start on Wednesday.

The government-authorised rescue began on April 13 after two children were reported to have starved and suffocated to death by their parents on Mackenzie’s advice on March 16 and 17.

Mackenzie, the head of the Good News International Church, is at the heart of what the Kenyan government officials have termed a “massacre”. He has been accused of indoctrinating his followers, asking them to abandon “earthly life” and meet at his farm in a village called Shakahola in Kilifi county for a fast “to meet Jesus”, leading to the mass deaths.

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

Source: Al Jazeera