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Teacher guilty in 'Muhammad' teddy bear case

A British teacher accused of insulting Islam by allowing her pupils name a teddy bear Muhammad was sentenced Thursday to 15 days in prison and deportation from Sudan.
Sudanese anti-riot policemen stand alert outside the Khartoum court on Thursday.
Sudanese anti-riot policemen stand alert outside the Khartoum court on Thursday.Abd Raouf / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A British teacher in Sudan was convicted Thursday of the less-serious charge of insulting Islam for letting her pupils name a teddy bear “Muhammad,” and was sentenced to 15 days in prison and deportation to Britain.

Gillian Gibbons could have received 40 lashes and six months in prison in the case if found guilty of the more serious charge of inciting religious hatred and given the maximum penalty.

In London, the Foreign Office said it was “extremely disappointed with the sentence,” adding that Foreign Secretary David Miliband summoned the Sudanese ambassador to explain the verdict.

In Washington, the White House called it an outrage. "Any one looking at this at the face would have to conclude this is outrageous," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino told reporters.

Gibbons, 54, was arrested Sunday after complaints to the Education Ministry that she had insulted the prophet Muhammad, the most revered figure in Islam, by applying his name to a teddy bear.

She was found guilty of “insulting the faith of Muslims in Sudan” under Article 125 of the Sudanese criminal code, a less-serious charge than the original count of inciting religious hatred, said Ali Mohammed Ajab, a member of her defense team.

The charge later was confirmed by a judge who was leaving the closed court session.

Appeal planned
“I feel this is very serious and very unfair,” Ajab told The Associated Press outside court. Ajab, who also works for the Khartoum Center for Human Rights, said the issue was raised by “hard-liners who are always trying to make some noise,” in an apparent reference to religious conservatives.

Ajab said his center would appeal the verdict.

Gibbons’ employer, Robert Boulos of the Unity High School, called it “a very fair verdict.”

“She could have had six months and lashes and a fine, and she only got 15 days and deportation,” Boulos said. He noted that she would only spend 10 days in prison, having already served five.

Gibbons is expected to serve her sentence in the Omdurman women’s prison near Khartoum.

Religious conservatives in Sudan were outraged by the naming of the teddy bear, and defense lawyers reported receiving death threats.

“I am threatened, that’s why I’m carrying a gun in court,” defense lawyer Abdel Khalig Abdallah said, opening his coat to reveal a revolver during a break in the trial.

British diplomats barred from courtGibbons, in a dark blue jacket and blue dress, was not handcuffed when she walked into the courtroom in Khartoum, according to reporters who were briefly allowed inside but were subsequently dismissed.

Although hearings in Sudan are usually public, the police cordon barred British diplomats and others from entering.

Gibbons, who arrived in Sudan only a few months ago, was teaching her pupils, who are around age 7, about animals, and asked one of them to bring in her teddy bear, according to Boulos.

Gibbons asked the students to pick names for it and they proposed Abdullah, Hassan and Muhammad, and in September, the pupils voted to name it Muhammad, he said.

Each child was allowed to take the bear home on weekends and write a diary about what they did with it. The diary entries were collected in a book with the bear’s picture on the cover, labeled, “My Name is Muhammad,” he said. The bear itself was never labeled with the name, he added.

Muhammad is a common name among Muslim men, but giving the prophet’s name to an animal would be seen as insulting by many Muslims.

Episcopalian Bishop Ezekiel Kondo, Gibbons’ employer said he was at the court “as a witness to testify that she never intended to insult any religion,” but he was also barred from entering.

The case set up an escalating diplomatic dispute with Britain, Sudan’s former colonial ruler. British and American Muslim groups also criticized the decision.

In London, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said, "There is an innocent misunderstanding at the heart of this, not a criminal offense."

A spokesman at the Sudanese Embassy in London had earlier said he did not think Gibbons would be convicted.

“Mrs. Gibbons has consular support, the British Embassy has one of the best solicitors in the country, whom I know personally,” said Khalid al Mubarak.

Clerics pushed for punishment
Officials in Sudan’s Foreign Ministry have tried to play down the case, calling it an isolated incident and initially predicting Gibbons could be released without charge.

But hard-liners have considerable weight in the government of President Omar al-Bashir, which came to power in a 1989 military coup saying it wanted to create an Islamic state.

The country’s top Muslim clerics pressed the government to ensure that she is punished, comparing her action to author Salman Rushdie’s “blasphemies” against the Prophet Muhammad.

The British novelist was accused of blasphemy by many Muslims for his 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses,” which had a character seen as a reference to the prophet. Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a religious edict calling for Rushdie’s death.

The north of Sudan bases its legal code on Islamic Sharia law, and al-Bashir often seeks to burnish his religious credentials.

Last year, he vowed to lead a jihad, or holy war, against U.N. peacekeepers if they deployed in the Darfur region of western Sudan. He relented this year to allow a U.N.-African Union force there, but this month said he would bar Scandinavian peacekeepers from participating because newspapers in their countries ran caricatures of Prophet Muhammad last year.