Sudan's President Pardons British Teacher

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 3, 2007; 9:17 AM

LONDON, Dec. 3 -- A British school teacher jailed in Sudan for two weeks after allowing her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad was freed Monday following a pardon by the Sudanese president.

President Omar al-Bashir's pardon of Gillian Gibbons allowed her to leave prison before the end of her 15-day sentence, and ended a diplomatic tangle, resulting in what British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called a victory for common sense.

Bashir pardoned Gibbons, 54, of Liverpool, after meeting with two Muslim members of Britain's House of Lords, Nazir Ahmed and Sayeeda Warsi, who had traveled to the predominantly Muslim African nation to lobby for her release.

"This is a case which is unfortunate, unintentional, innocent misunderstanding," Ahmed told reporters in Khartoum after the pardon was announced. Wire services reported from Khartoum that Gibbons was released to British diplomats around 7 a.m.

Gibbons's case caused international outrage and strained relations between Britain and Sudan, whose government is under intense international pressure over the crisis in its Darfur region. Government officials and many British Muslim leaders said they believed Sudan's prosecution of Gibbons was a reaction to that pressure, particularly the upcoming arrival of a U.N.-backed peacekeeping force in Darfur.

Western governments accuse Khartoum of backing violent militia groups that have killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced more than 2 million from their homes in one of the worst humanitarian crises in African history.

"This case has done quite a bit of damage to how the Sudanese government will be perceived; they have done their country no favors," said Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, the county's largest Muslim organization. He called Gibbon's release "wonderful news."

British Muslim groups spoke out strongly in favor of Gibbons and said the Sudanese government's actions in the case have created greater misunderstandings about Islam.

"This has certainly given ammunition to those who never miss an opportunity to portray Muslims as intolerant," Bunglawala said. "We only hope that the actions of Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi and the whole British Muslim community can mitigate against the damage done by the Sudanese authorities."

Gibbons had been jailed since she was arrested Nov. 25 on charges of inciting hatred and insulting Islam after her 7-year-old pupils named a toy bear after Islam's most revered prophet as part of a school project. She was convicted last week and sentenced to 15 days in jail, escaping a potentially longer sentence and up to 40 lashes.

While the conviction was greeted with outrage and disbelief in Britain, hundreds of protesters in Sudan complained that the sentence was too light and some called for her execution. A leading group of Muslim clerics in Sudan said Gibbons was part of a western plot against Islam.

"I have been in Sudan for only four months, but I have enjoyed myself immensely," Gibbons said in a statement read for reporters by Warsi. "I have encountered nothing but kindness and generosity from the Sudanese people. I have great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone, and I am sorry if I caused any distress."

Gibbons said she was looking forward to seeing her family and friends but "very sorry that I will be unable to return to Sudan."

"I was extremely happy working in Unity High School and there I had made some wonderful friends," the statement said.

Brown told reporters he was "delighted and relieved" at the decision to free Gibbons and said "common sense had prevailed." He praised Ahmed and Warsi and other British officials he said had been working with Sudanese authorities behind the scenes.

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