Teacher Convicted in Teddy Bear Case

The Associated Press
Thursday, November 29, 2007; 6:57 PM

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- A Sudanese court convicted a British teacher Thursday of insulting Islam for letting her students name a teddy bear Muhammad and sentenced her to 15 days in prison, avoiding a heavier punishment of 40 lashes. The teacher wept in court, insisting she never meant to offend.

The sentence and quick seven-hour trial were aimed at swiftly resolving the case, which had put Sudan's government in an embarrassing position _ facing the anger of Britain on one side and potential trouble from powerful Islamic hard-liners on the other.

The defense said the case was sparked by a school secretary with a grudge. But it escalated as Muslim clerics sought to drum up public outrage against what it called a Western plot to insult Islam's Prophet Muhammad and demanding Gibbons be punished.

Officials were trying to tamp down public anger in the face of hard-line calls for protests after Muslim prayers Friday.

The government, which has often touted its Islamic credentials, encouraged past protests over cartoons seen as insulting the prophet published in European papers. But its moves now suggested it feared the case could hurt its reputation in the West.

The teacher, Gillian Gibbons, "was in tears" when she testified in court Thursday, a member of her defense team, Abdel-Khaliq Abdallah, told The Associated Press.

"She said that she never wanted to insult Islam" by allowing the children to name the stuffed toy Muhammad, a common name among Muslim men, the lawyer said, speaking outside the courtroom. Media were barred from the chamber.

Gibbons, 54, was found guilty of "insulting the faith of Muslims" and sentenced to 15 days in jail, followed by deportation, said Ali Mohammed Ajab, a human rights lawyer on the defense team. The charge is a lesser offense in the article of the criminal code under which she was tried, which includes several possible charges.

Prosecutors had pressed for conviction on a heavier charge under the same article _ inciting religious hatred, which carries a punishment of up to 40 lashes, six months in prison and a fine.

A judge leaving the courtroom confirmed the verdict to reporters, but refused to give his name.

Britain said it was "extremely disappointed with the sentence." London had been conducting delicate diplomatic efforts to ensure she received no punishment for what it said was a "misunderstanding."

In London, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband summoned the Sudanese ambassador after the verdict and sentence. During the 45-minute meeting, Miliband "expressed in the strongest terms our concern at the continued detention of Gillian Gibbons," the Foreign Office said in a statement. Miliband also spoke on the phone with Sudan's acting foreign minister.

Gibbons' supporters in Khartoum were divided over the verdict. Ajab, a human rights lawyer on the defense team, called the ruling "very unfair," blaming "hard-liners trying to make some noise."

But the director of Gibbons' Unity High School, Robert Boulos, said the lawyers hired by the school would not appeal, noting she could have received a heavier sentence. He said Gibbons, jailed since Sunday, has already served five days in prison and would only have to serve 10 more.

The case began with a classroom project on animals in September at the private school, which has 750 students from elementary to high school levels, most from wealthy Sudanese Muslim families.

Gibbons had one of her 7-year-old students bring in a teddy bear, then asked the class to name it and they chose the name Muhammad.

Each student then took the teddy bear home to write a diary entry about it, and the entries were compiled into a book with the bear's picture on the cover, titled "My Name is Muhammad," Boulos said.

But an office assistant at the school, Sara Khawad, complained to the Ministry of Education that Gibbons had insulted the prophet. Khawad testified at Thursday's trial, chief defense lawyer Kamal Djizouri said.

Khawad "was doing this out of revenge against the administration," Djizouri said. He did not elaborate. But the director of the school's Parent-Teacher Association, Isam Abu Hasabu, claimed Khawad had argued with the principal before the incident.

Comparing the Prophet Muhammad _ Islam's most revered figure _ to an animal or a toy could be insulting to Muslims. But Boulos said that, contrary to earlier reports, no parents had complained.

"It's just a teddy bear," Boulos said.

However, influential Muslim hard-liners sought to raise outrage over the case. The semi-official Assembly of the Ulemas, or Islamic clerics, said Wednesday that Gibbon's action was "another ring in the circles of plotting against Islam."

They compared her action to the prophet cartoons run in European papers and to Salman Rushdie, the British author who was accused of blasphemy for his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses." Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a religious edict calling for Rushdie's death.

Some members of Gibbons' defense team reported receiving death threats. The school has been closed since her arrest for security reasons.

Wednesday night, a pickup truck drove through Khartoum calling for Sudanese to hold protests after Muslim prayers Friday.

But Maj. Gen. Abdeen al-Tahir of the Khartoum police, vowed security would prevent any protests. "Nothing will happen tomorrow," he said.

The government issued orders to clerics not to deliver inflammatory sermons Friday about the case or against foreigners, a senior government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the government had also ordered officials not to discuss the case.

The north of Sudan bases its legal code on Islamic law, and President Omar al-Bashir often seeks to burnish his religious credentials, playing up to his hard-line supporters.

But in Gibbons' case, the government appeared reluctant to let hard-liners steer it into tensions with Britain and the West. Public pressure by Western governments over the Darfur conflict has eased recently, with a U.N.-African peacekeeping force preparing to deploy.


Associated Press writer Mohamed Osman contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Associated Press