HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Eight nurses arrested on allegations of inciting violent protests against the firing of a popular Canadian doctor from a church mission hospital have been allowed to return to their posts, Zimbabwe court officials said Thursday.
Officials said the nurses and 12 other villagers accused of staging the protests at the Salvation Army Howard Hospital, 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Harare, are to reappear in a provincial court on Sept. 24 on charges carrying a penalty of imprisonment or a fine.
Police fired teargas to disperse hundreds of protesters at the hospital on Aug. 17 demanding the reinstatement of Canadian Dr. Paul Thistle, fired by the Salvation Army for criticizing local church leaders.
The nurses had been barred at an earlier bail hearing from returning to the mission.
Thistle, from Scarborough in Canada, was given until Sept. 1 to leave Zimbabwe by the Salvation Army but has refused to go.
He said Thursday he has not been contacted by state immigration authorities or police to deport him. He dismissed reports he has been holed up in the Canadian embassy in Harare.
The Salvation Army has no authority to expel him from the country, he said. Some of those criticizing him likely meant to imply he was a fugitive with political ties, he said.
Thistle told The Associated Press he is staying with his Zimbabwean family in Harare and hopes to remain at liberty in the country at least until after the charges against the nurses and his supporters are heard and the crisis facing the hospital eases.
Colleagues said Thistle, who served at the hospital for 17 years, had recent disagreements with superiors over hospital development projects and funding, much of it raised by him and Canadian counterparts in the Salvation Army.
His work at the hospital and his far reaching programs to treat AIDS sufferers in the impoverished Chiweshe district, where the hospital serves a community of 270,000 people, have won accolades from medical professionals in Zimbabwe and worldwide.
The well-loved physician was carried shoulder high by villagers during the dispute at the mission over his future. Community elders said they wanted him to stay.
Since then, there has been an outpouring of public anger at his dismissal.
One of Thistle's patients reported in a letter to the media last week she was turned away by a main Harare hospital after being told she only had months to live without costly surgery she could not afford.
Thistle operated for a minor fee and she was now "up and about, with the problem rectified."
"Salvation Army officials must swallow humble pie and consider the will of the people," she wrote.