Confusion snarls probe of cult deaths in Uganda

Some believe leaders escaped

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 27, 2000
By Craig Nelson

Rugazi, Uganda -- The investigation into the suspicious deaths of at least 490 members of a Christian doomsday sect became tangled in logistics Sunday, while a leading legislator speculated that sect leaders were behind the deaths.

Local police guarded a half-open grave at the sect's remote compound in southwestern Uganda, awaiting the arrival of a pathologist from Kampala, the capital, and investigators from a nearby town to continue exhuming the burial pit.

But Uganda's chief pathologist never left the capital, police said. "Logistics were a problem," police spokesman Mugenyi Assuman said by telephone from Kampala.

Meanwhile, a team of investigators standing by for the pathologist in Rukungiri, 19 miles from the compound, were never informed of the delay. Senior Ugandan officials have quoted a 17-year-old sect member as saying the sect's two top leaders --- Cledonia Mwerinde, 40, and Joseph Kibweteere, 68 --- may have fled the area March 17, when a fire in a sect church killed 330 members. Those reports are unconfirmed.

The deaths in the village of Kanungu were initially viewed as a mass suicide. However, officials, police and villagers have speculated that the two leaders fled as the sect grew increasingly divided over the fact that the world did not end Dec. 31 as was predicted and wanted back their belongings, which they had surrendered on joining the sect.

Jim Muhezi, a leading member of Parliament and a onetime head of Uganda's internal security agency, theorized Saturday that sect leaders cracked down viciously on the defiant, poisoning some and urging the mass suicide to curb further defections.

Muhezi also criticized the investigation into the deaths of hundreds of members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments. Asked by reporters why 153 bodies in a sect compound in nearby Buhunga were exhumed and hastily reburied Friday without being identified, Muhezi replied, "Your guess is as good as mine. It's a poor investigative job." Authorities in the East African nation say their probe has been hampered by lack of equipment, vehicles and staff.

The initial belief that the deaths at Kanungu were mass suicide, a senseless tragedy, soon turned sinister when the crumpled bodies of what investigators said were six murdered men were discovered crammed into one of the compound's latrines. Within days, 153 bodies were found buried in the dirt floors of a sect compound in Buhunga, some 13 miles away.

The sect had up to 1,000 members, and authorities fear most may have become victims. Government officials are treating movement leader Kibwetere as a fugitive and all the deaths as murder.

While they waited for experts to arrive Sunday, authorities in Rugazi, 36 miles from Buhunga, surveyed a small sugar cane field adjoining the compound, mapping the tentative boundaries of an excavation for more bodies.

At the corner of the field was the half-open grave, an arm and hip jutting from the brown earth.

Police discovered the grave Friday, when they came to inspect the compound that until recently belonged to Dominic Kataribabo, who became a leader in the sect soon after a local bishop stripped him of his duties as Roman Catholic priest in the early 1990s.

To sect followers who flocked to the three-building compound with its stunning view of nearby Lake Edward, Kataribabo preached the movement's apocalyptic message and criticized Roman Catholic officials for failing to live up to their public teachings.

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