Sudan Convicts Teacher In Naming of Teddy Bear

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 30, 2007

LONDON, Nov. 29 -- A Sudanese court on Thursday convicted a British schoolteacher of inciting religious hatred by allowing her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad and sentenced her to 15 days in jail.

British officials were "very disappointed," a spokesman for the Foreign Office said, while leading members of the British Muslim community expressed outrage over a decision they said could increase misunderstanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.

"This is unbelievable, a travesty of justice, a disgrace -- what planet are they on?" said Asghar Bukhari of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee, a group that advocates greater Muslim involvement in the democratic process.

"Things like this make our differences seem like they are unbridgeable," Bukhari said. "If you don't really know another community, and all you ever hear is these outrageous, alien, unjust things they are doing, you are going to think, 'We've got nothing in common.' "

Gillian Gibbons, 54, a Liverpool teacher working in a school in Khartoum, was convicted of insulting religion, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs after a court appearance that lasted several hours. She was ordered deported after she serves her sentence. She had faced a maximum sentence of 40 lashes and six months in jail.

Gibbons's supporters argued that she intended no insult or disrespect when she allowed her 7-year-old pupils to give the bear the same name as Islam's prophet. They said that the children named the bear out of affection for Muhammad and that Gibbons also was fascinated by the religion and culture of Sudan, which is predominantly Muslim.

Gibbons "was in tears" when she testified in court, insisting she never meant to offend, a member of her defense team, Abdel-Khaliq Abdallah, told the Associated Press. The courtroom was closed to the media.

Some analysts said Gibbons should have been more aware of cultural sensitivities in Sudan. But people in Britain appeared generally surprised by her arrest, dismayed that she was formally charged Wednesday and dumbfounded that she was convicted.

"It's a great shame," said Jill Lindsay, 65, a guitar teacher encountered walking in west London on Thursday evening. "I guess their system is not like ours. But think about it: She's gone there to take up teaching! It's not a good thing for people who want to travel, who want to help people. It's crazy."

The case has strained relations between Britain and Sudan. Foreign Secretary David Miliband summoned the Sudanese ambassador Thursday to discuss the case and again a few hours later so the ambassador could explain the verdict.

Foreign Office officials said it was not immediately clear whether Sudanese officials intended to make Gibbons serve her full sentence before deportation.

Government officials and Muslim leaders in Britain said they believed the case may be linked to severe Western criticism of Sudan over its handling of the Darfur crisis. Western officials accuse the Khartoum government of backing militia groups that have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and forced more than 2 million people from their homes in the country's west.

The Sudan case echoes last year's controversy over a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons lampooning Muhammad. But while that case caused genuine offense and outrage among Muslims worldwide, the Sudan case appears to have embarrassed and saddened many Muslims.

"I don't know whether to laugh or cry," Bukhari said. "This is absolutely the last thing that Muslims need and that the world needs -- greater misunderstanding between Muslims and non-Muslims."

Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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