human rights

Kenya: Shakahola revives calls for change in law on suicide attempts

By Victor Abuso

Posted on July 11, 2023 12:46

Kenyan MPs and Senators inside Parliament Buildings in Nairobi, Kenya on 5 May 2021. FILE | REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi
FILE PHOTO | Kenyan MPs and Senators inside Parliament Buildings in Nairobi, Kenya on 5 May 2021. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

Human rights defenders in Kenya are pushing for decriminalisation of suicide attempts following the Shakahola massacre where 350 people died.

Followers of a religious sect leader, Pastor Paul Mackenzie, committed suicide by starvation after they were brainwashed to fast and die in order to “meet Jesus in heaven”.

65 survivors who were rescued by government agencies have since been arrested and charged in court with attempted suicide.

However, according to the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), individuals who attempt to kill themselves should get medical attention instead of facing the law.

The law stipulates that any person who attempts to kill oneself is guilty of a misdemeanour, which is punishable by two years’ imprisonment, a fine or both.

“The decision to arrest and arraign in court survivors was erroneous,” KNCHR commissioner Mariam Mutugi told the Senate committee that is investigating the Shakahola deaths.

The human rights body is renewing previous calls made for decriminalisation of Section 226 of the Penal Code (Chapter 63, Laws of Kenya).

During the World Suicide Prevention Day in 2020, KNCHR called on the government to “adopt preventive holistic approach to addressing suicide, one that incorporates rights-based measures in addition to modern public health approaches”, and fast-track the Mental Health Amendment law.

‘Urgent mental help’

Francis Auma, a human rights defender from the Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) in Mombasa, tells The Africa Report that people who attempt to kill themselves are vulnerable and must be protected.

“These people [Shakahola survivors] need urgent mental help. They have been manipulated due to situations of life,” he says.

On the other hand, Amnesty International Kenya, in its memorandum to the Senate committee, demanded that the fundamental rights and freedoms of the survivors be respected, and that all government officials who are suspected to have aided the killings be sanctioned.

This legislation is not based on what is needed in Kenya. It was imposed by an outside force,

“The State massively failed in its obligation to protect the rights of hundreds [of people] in Shakahola,” says Irũngũ Houghton, Executive Director of Amnesty International Kenya.

A report from the Coalition for Actions for Preventative Mental Health Kenya Chapter also says that changing the law will enhance opportunities for effective suicide prevention and interventions.

“This legislation is not based on what is needed in Kenya. It was imposed by an outside force,” it says in its 2022 report.

The recommendation comes two weeks after one of the victims of the Shakahola massacre who had been rescued and detained died in custody due to hunger-related complications.

Mackenzie, the head of the Good News International Church, is also in custody, and has been accused of indoctrinating his followers by asking them to fast to death in order “to meet Jesus”.

Sceptical opposition

Security Minister Kithure Kindiki has announced the discovery of more than 40 graveyards.

Meanwhile, the Senate committee is meeting various stakeholders and victims and will make recommendations on how to regulate religious organisations to avoid extreme indoctrination of their followers, including radicalisation, spiritual and financial exploitation.

President Willam Ruto also formed a commission of inquiry to probe the same matter, which has, however, been stopped by the court following a petition by opposition leader Raila Odinga.

Raila says Ruto’s commission should not interfere with the constitutionally-mandated bodies.

He accuses Ruto of allocating powers to himself to form the commission of inquiry yet they are vested in the national assembly.

The Opposition has also accused the government of dishonesty in finding the truth behind the massacre after Raila was barred from visiting the scene.

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