The sentencing prompted the union to say it was calling off talks with the government. With national elections due in August, the strike is fast-becoming a hot issue for President Uhuru Kenyatta who is aiming to win a second term.
Kenya’s labour court had handed suspended sentences to the union officials a month ago after they ignored an earlier court order to end the strike. But jailing them Monday for contempt of court, Judge Hellen Wasilwa said the seven had provided no reason for punishment to be deferred.
“The applicants have not demonstrated to court any new and compelling issue, or pointed out any mistake or error apparent on the record, or any sufficient cause that would warrant review of the court’s order,” Wasilwa said.
The officials were handcuffed and driven to jail past placard-waving supporters gathered outside the court. The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentist Union’s response was unequivocal.
“We are disappointed, we have suspended all the negotiations,” said Thuranira Kaugiria, a union official.
Union members and supporters will hold daily vigils outside prison until the officials are released, he added.
– ‘Legitimate strike’ –
Opposition leader Raila Odinga criticised the decision to send the union leaders to jail and blamed the ruling Jubilee Party government for the crisis.
Odinga said he was “horrified, disturbed and shocked” at the sentencing and said it marked “the lowest point that Jubilee’s intransigence, incompetence and inability to lead has brought the nation to.”
The nationwide strike involving thousands of doctors and nurses began on December 5. It has left public hospitals closed and patients unable to get basic medical care.
Doctors have rejected a government offer of a 40 percent rise saying it falls short of promises made in a 2013 agreement. Staff shortages and a lack of equipment have also failed to be tackled.
Widespread industrial action is not limited to healthcare, with Kenyan university lecturers also on strike over pay since last month.
A series of corruption scandals — including in the health ministry — are fuelling the discontent, as is anger towards lawmakers who are among the best paid in the world and have voted themselves new benefits while claiming to be unable to meet doctors’ and lecturers’ demands.
While inconveniencing many ordinary Kenyans, the doctors’ strike has nonetheless received wide support in the media and the public.