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The death toll among followers of a Kenyan cult who believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves has risen to 89, Interior Minister Kithure Kindiki said on Tuesday, calling for the group’s leader to spend the rest of his life in prison.

The toll has steadily risen in recent days as authorities have carried out exhumations of mass graves found in an 800-acre area of the Shakahola forest in eastern Kenya where the self-proclaimed Good News International Church was based.

Naomi Kahindi, who lost her sister and her children, all of them followers of a Christian cult named “Good News International Church”, who believed they would go to heaven, if they starved themselves to death in Shakahola, mourns with other relatives at the Malindi sub district hospital mortuary in Malindi, Kilifi county, Kenya April 26, 2023. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

Reuters reports most of the dead were recovered from shallow graves, while a small number were found alive and emaciated but later died.

“Over and above the figure that was given yesterday at 73, we have been able to discover until this hour another 16 bodies, bringing the total to 89,” Kindiki told reporters at the scene.

Volunteers assist forensic experts and homicide detectives from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), to exhume bodies of suspected followers of a Christian cult named as Good News International Church, whose members believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves to death, in Shakahola forest of Kilifi county, Kenya, April 25, 2023. REUTERS/Joseph Okanga

News videos showed mud huts with palm thatched roofs, scattered among clusters of thorn trees and scrub bushes.

The death toll could rise further. The Kenyan Red Cross said more than 200 people had been reported as missing to a tracing and counselling desk it has set up at a local hospital.

The cult’s leader, Paul Mackenzie, was arrested on April 14 following a tip-off and another 14 cult members are in custody, according to police. Kenyan media have reported that Mackenzie is refusing food and water.

Forensic experts and homicide detectives carry the bodies of suspected members of a Christian cult named as Good News International Church, who believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves to death, after their remains were exhumed from their graves in Shakahola forest of Kilifi county, Kenya April 22, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer

“We do not expect that Mr. Mackenzie will get out of jail for the rest of his life,” said Kindiki, adding that anyone who assisted him by digging graves or disposing of bodies should also face the harshest penalties under the law.

Reuters reports Kenya’s Office of the Director Of Public Prosecutions said preliminary investigations showed that the suspects might have committed crimes including murder, radicalization and threatening public safety.

Kenya police officers arrive at the scene where forensic experts and homicide detectives exhume bodies of suspected members of a Christian cult named as Good News International Church, who believed they would go to heaven if they starved themselves to death, in Shakahola forest of Kilifi county, Kenya, April 22, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer

“The government admits that this should not have happened,” said Kindiki, describing events in the Shakahola forest as a turning point in the threat posed by religious extremism.

“But the government which I represent here wants to assure the nation of Kenya that nothing like this again will happen (again). It won’t happen.”

Hailing from Charlotte North Carolina, born litterateur Ezekiel J. Walker earned a B.A. in Psychology at Winston Salem State University. Walker later published his first creative nonfiction book and has...

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