NAIROBI Kenya's Court of Appeal on Wednesday ordered the release from jail of officials from the national doctors' union so they can negotiate with the government over a strike that has paralysed the public health sector.
The strike has angered Kenyans and turned into a test of President Uhuru Kenyatta's leadership ahead of an election in August.
The union, which has about 5,000 members, wants the government to implement a deal agreed in 2013 to give doctors a 150 to 180 percent pay rise on basic salaries, review working conditions, job structures and criteria for promotions and address under-staffing in state hospitals.
The seven union officials were ordered to serve a one-month jail term on Monday after a lower court found them guilty of contempt of court in relation to the strike which started in December.
Appellate Judge Hannah Okwengu said the seven officials would be released immediately. She said the parties in the labour dispute had seven days to find a resolution.
"The applicants, respondents and interested parties undertake to resume negotiations forthwith, with a view to resolving the outstanding issues, in order to restore normalcy in the public health sector," she told a court packed with doctors.
The government has offered the striking doctors a 40 percent pay rise which the union rejected.
The Law Society of Kenya and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, who appeared as interested parties, were ordered to mediate the dispute and report back to the court.
Opposition leader Raila Odinga said the strike had dragged for too long and blamed the government for the impasse.
"So many innocent Kenyans have died in hospitals for lack of treatment," he told reporters outside the court.
Doctors in private hospitals had agreed to stop work for 48 hours from midnight Tuesday in solidarity with the officials of the Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentists' Union, which represents workers in state hospitals.
Reuters visited three private hospitals on Wednesday which were fully operational, with doctors at work.
University lecturers are also striking over pay, worsening the political crisis before elections in August, when Kenyans choose their next president, members of parliament and local governors.
(Additional reporting by Humphrey Malalo; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Toby Chopra)