Kenya court acquits ex-leader of sect

Nairobi, Kenya - A Kenyan court acquitted on Wednesday the former leader and 28 members of an outlawed sect that has become the target of a government crackdown after a spate of attacks including six beheadings.

The government has promised to wipe out the Mungiki sect after many accused it of being behind six murders this week that left severed heads and body parts scattered in areas of Kenya's Central Province and near the capital Nairobi.

John Maina Njenga and 28 others were accused of making people swear a loyalty oath to the sect, which was banned in 2002.

"I acquit Njenga and others because the prosecution has failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt to sustain a conviction," Magistrate Teresia Ngugi said in her ruling.

The former chairman will remain in custody while awaiting the outcome of another case in which he is charged with having a firearm without a license.

Mungiki has fought weeks of battles with minibus operators who are resisting demands for protection money. The minibus, or matatu, business nets more than 90 million Kenya shillings a day nationwide, according to the government.

Internal Security Minister John Michuki said the government was stepping up measures to stop Mungiki, including increased patrols on matatu routes and a permanent police presence at bus stops in affected areas.

"I want to send a clear message to members of all the proscribed gangs and sects ... to abandon their criminal lifestyles, because the government will do everything possible as mandated by the law to wipe them out," Michuki said.

He also told a press conference that police had been directed to investigate any politicians using gangs for political purposes.

Michuki has criticised the judiciary for failing to convict Mungiki suspects, and has promised many times to eliminate the group by force if necessary.

The sect, whose name means "multitude" in the Kikuyu tribal language, was banned in 2002 after members armed with knives and clubs killed more than 20 people in a Nairobi slum.

The group instils fear by promoting archaic rituals like swearing oaths and female circumcision, and many Kenyans believe it has been supported by corrupt politicians.