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'Teddy bear' teacher leaves Sudan after pardon

A British teacher jailed for letting her students name a teddy bear Muhammad was released Monday and then boarded a plane for Britain after Sudan's president pardoned her.
Image: Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir meets with British Muslim Lord Nazir Ahmed in Khartoum.
Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir, right, receives Lord Nazir Ahmed, left, a Muslim member of Britain's upper house, at a meeting Monday in Khartoum.Charles Onians / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: news services

A British teacher jailed after she allowed her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad was released Monday and then boarded a flight back to Britain hours after Sudan's president pardoned her, a British Embassy spokesman said.

The teacher, Gillian Gibbons, said she did not intend to offend anyone and had great respect for Islam.

Gibbons was sentenced on Thursday to 15 days in prison and deportation for insulting Islam because she allowed her students to name a class teddy bear Muhammad, seen as a reference to Islam's Prophet Muhammad.

The teacher's conviction under Sudan's Islamic Sharia law shocked Britons and many Muslims worldwide. It also inflamed passions among many Sudanese, some of whom called for her execution.

Gibbons escaped harsher punishment that could have included up to 40 lashes, six months in prison and a fine.

No plan to return
In a written statement released by the presidential palace and read by Warsi to reporters Monday, 54-year-old Gibbons said she was sorry if she caused any "distress."

"I have a great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone," Gibbons said in the statement. "I am looking forward to seeing my family and friends, but I am very sorry that I will be unable to return to Sudan."

Gibbons prompted a complaint after she let her pupils at Khartoum's private Unity High School pick their favorite name for a teddy bear as part of a project in September.

Twenty out of 23 of them chose Muhammad — a popular boy's name in Sudan, as well as the name of Islam's Prophet.

The staff of Unity High School where Gibbons worked shouted gleefully when they heard the news.

"Everybody is so happy, everyone is just laughing now," Robert Boulos, head of the school, told Reuters.

He said Gibbons would be welcome to rejoin the teaching staff if she wanted. Gibbons had been suspended following a school investigation into the affair.

Britain hails release
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose country has had poor relations with Sudan for several years mainly due to the ongoing conflict in Darfur, said he was "delighted and relieved" to hear that Gibbons was being released.

Sudan's influential Council of Muslim Scholars had urged the government on Sunday not to pardon Gibbons, saying it would damage Khartoum's reputation among Muslims around the world.

About 50 demonstrators shouting "There is no God but Allah" and "We will die for the Prophet Mohammad" handed over a petition to the embassy about the affair.

"Retracting this light sentence ... would wound the sensibilities of the Muslims in Sudan," Council Spokesman al-Sheikh Mohammad Abdel Karim said.

Many Sudanese said they thought it was an innocent mistake which could be forgiven after an apology.

Khartoum has had tense ties with the West in recent years over disagreements over how to handle Darfur, where the U.N. Security Council wants to deploy a joint U.N.-African force to help end the conflict and help displaced people return home.

Khartoum reluctantly agreed but is disputing many details. International experts say some 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have fled their homes in ethnic and political conflict in Darfur since a revolt by mostly non-Arab rebels in 2003.