The emaciated survivors of a doomsday cult in Kenya that the authorities say ordered its followers to starve themselves to death held hands and leaned on each other as they staggered into a courtroom on Thursday to face charges of trying to kill themselves.
The 65 cult members have been refusing to eat their meals at a rescue center where they are being cared for — prompting the authorities to charge them with attempted suicide, a crime under Kenyan law, and adding a further twist to a case that has shocked the East African nation.
The followers of Paul Nthenge Mackenzie, an evangelical pastor who the authorities say told members of his church to starve their children and themselves to death in order to meet Jesus, appeared at the Shanzu Law Courts in the port city of Mombasa, carrying their few belongings and bags. Some of them, looking gaunt and weak, fell asleep during the proceedings.
While there had been speculation that the survivors would be sent to jail to await trial, the magistrate, Joe Omido, followed recommendations from Kenya’s national human rights watchdog to return them to the rescue center.
As of this week, 318 bodies have been exhumed from the Shakahola Forest, an 800-acre bushland area where the pastor and his congregants lived and where those who died had been buried in shallow graves at least since 2021. At least 613 people remain missing, county officials said, while 95 others have so far been rescued.
The case, which first came to public attention in April, has jolted Kenya, with rights groups and observers wondering how the police and intelligence services failed to prevent the deaths for so long.
In a country where religious freedom is enshrined in the Constitution, the affair has also raised questions about whether the authorities should regulate religious institutions. The gruesome deaths of so many people have raised concerns about the need to track and address religious extremism.
Kenya’s president, William Ruto, a devout Christian and the country’s first evangelical leader, has appointed a commission to investigate the killings. Kithure Kindiki, the cabinet secretary for Kenya’s interior ministry, said that the forest would be turned into a national memorial. But rights groups have argued that the government should do more, including compensating the victims and their families.
Mr. Mackenzie was a taxi driver before he established the Good News International Church and transformed himself into an evangelical pastor almost two decades ago. As his congregation grew, he promoted the Shakahola Forest as a refuge from the impending end of days.
But instead, the forest has become a crime scene and has dominated news coverage in major newspapers and television programs in Kenya. While many people died of starvation in the forest, government pathologists have said that others also died of asphyxiation and strangulation.
Mr. Mackenzie has insisted that he did not command anyone in his congregation to fast or starve to death. But prosecutors allege that he lured them to starvation, and they are holding him and more than three dozen other collaborators on charges including murder and terrorism.
The rights watchdog, the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, had criticized the decision to charge the victims with attempted suicide, and called on the government to provide them with psychiatric and mental health support instead of prosecuting them.
Attempting suicide is considered a misdemeanor under Kenya’s penal code, punishable with a fine or a prison sentence of up to two years. The offense is a relic of British colonial laws.
In his ruling, Mr. Omido said that the victims should be returned to the rescue center, receive counseling and a psychological assessment, and be closely monitored. He ordered another court hearing on June 29. One person, who refused to comply with a mental assessment or receive medical care, was sent to jail after the hearing.
Mr. Kindiki, the interior minister, has said the government had “a watertight case” that would prove Mr. Mackenzie and others had committed “charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.”
Unlike his followers, Mr. Mackenzie has been eating in prison, the authorities say.
Even as he faces serious charges in court, Mr. Mackenzie’s defense has run into challenges.
This week, two of his lawyers, who were also representing three dozen other suspects, withdrew from the case citing frustration with the government over a lack of adequate access to their clients or being given enough time for preparation.
A third lawyer said he would remain to defend Mr. Mackenzie in court.
“We were just following the law to ensure that his interests as a suspect have been followed,” Elisha Komora, one of the lawyers who withdrew from representing Mr. Mackenzie, said in a phone interview.