Kenya’s doctors union said its seven-week strike would continue as long as needed to secure demands on pay and conditions, ignoring a court ruling ordering a return to work in five days or jail for union leaders.

The strike, which began on Dec 5, has emptied hospital beds as relatives take patients to care for them at home and poses a challenge for the government in an election year, as it seeks to prevent other state workers taking action for higher pay.

The Court has extended the suspension of doctors’ union officials’ sentence by five more days to give room for further negotiations with the Government.

The Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists’ Union (KMPDU) officials were expected to begin their jail sentence Thursday Jan 26 but Judge Hellen Wasilwa has reviewed the order allowing negotiations to call off the strike to proceed.

The over 5000 doctors converged at Railways club where they began a protest march to Milimani Courts.

The union moved to court on a certificate of urgency seeking to suspend the jail term slapped on the.

In the application, the doctors’ union claim the sentencing of the officials; Secretary General Ouma Oluga, Chairman Samuel Oroko, Treasurer Daisy Korir, Deputy Treasurer Evelynn Chege, Deputy Secretary General Mwachonda Chibanzi and Vice Chair Allan Ochanji is likely to cripple the ongoing negotiations.

They want the sentence halted for a period of two weeks to enable them engage the government and the Council of Governors to resolve the dispute.

They have also accused government officials of arm-twisting them and frustrating the talks on salary increment among other demands.

The doctors’ strike has entered the 53rd day.

The government has expressed frustrations with the doctors’ union officials over the 2013 pay hike demands.

Health Cabinet Secretary Dr. Cleopa Mailu has accused the officials of rejecting an improved pay package that was offered by the government Tuesday morning.

Under the improved offer, the lowest paid doctor in job group M would take home 196,989 as opposed to the previous offer of 127,910 under a lower job group L.

Several thousand doctors and their supporters marched from the courts to the centre of Nairobi where leaders of the Kenya Medical Practitioners Pharmacists and Dentists’ Union (KMPDU) refused the time limit placed by the court order.

Justice Hellen Wasilwa had initially handed union leaders a suspended one-month sentence on Jan 12 after they defied a December ruling declaring the strike illegal. But she gave them a two-week period for negotiations to avoid jail.

In Thursday’s ruling she gave them another five days in which to end the strike or face contempt of court.

So I will suspend this sentence further, so the doctors will not be going to jail today. They have five more days and these five days is not for negotiation in my view, it’s for calling off the strike because I am dealing with the case for contempt, said Wasilwa.

Local newspapers have reported critically ill patients left unattended and published images of abandoned hospital beds after 5,000 members of the KMPDU � the only union representing doctors in government hospitals � began their walkout.

The union is demanding the fulfilment of a 2013 agreement which it says awarded doctors a 150-180 percent pay rise on basic salaries, a review of working conditions and promotions criteria, as well as hiring of more staff in state hospitals.

The East African state’s government says it can only afford a 40 percent pay rise but would work to meet other conditions.