A British teacher detained in Sudan after her class called a teddy bear Muhammad was charged on Wednesday with insulting Islam in a move that sparked a diplomatic row between London and Khartoum.
Gillian Gibbons (54) was also charged with inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs, Sudanese official media said. If convicted, she could face 40 lashes, a fine or one year in jail.
”Khartoum North prosecution unit has completed its investigation and has charged the Briton Gillian [Gibbons] under Article 125 of the criminal code,” Sudanese news agency Suna said, quoting a senior Justice Ministry official.
In London, a British Foreign Office spokesperson confirmed that Gibbons had been charged and officials said Foreign Secretary David Miliband was calling in the Sudanese ambassador over the affair.
”We are surprised and disappointed by this development and the foreign secretary will summon as a matter of urgency the Sudanese ambassador to discuss this matter further,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s official spokesperson said.
The matter would go before a court on Thursday and Gibbons, who is from Liverpool, was expected to appear.
Fellow teachers said they did not believe Gibbons had intended to insult Islam and had made an innocent mistake in choosing the name.
Earlier on Wednesday, three British embassy officials and a teaching colleague from the Unity High School where Gibbons worked were allowed to visit her for more than 90 minutes.
”I can confirm that we have met Ms Gibbons and she said she is being treated well,” said British consul Russell Phillips. ”We remain in close contact with the Sudanese authorities on this case,” he said, declining to give further details.
Gibbons was arrested after some parents complained about the bear being named after the Prophet Muhammad.
Teachers at the school said Gibbons had asked her class of seven-year-olds to choose their favourite name for the bear, and 20 of the 23 had voted for Muhammad.
A seven-year-old student called Mohammad told Reuters this week that he had suggested his own name be used for the bear.
In a writing exercise students were allowed to take the bear home and asked to keep a diary of what they did with the toy. These accounts were put together in a book entitled My Name is Muhammad.
Leaflets were distributed in Khartoum calling for protests after Friday prayers, but many ordinary Sudanese said they were ready to forgive Gibbons if she apologised.
”When we heard we wanted to demonstrate immediately but some said we should wait and see what the concerned authorities find out,” said Abdallah, a science student.
Shopkeeper Sabir Abdel Karim said that if Gibbons had not intended to insult Islam, an apology to Muslims would be enough to end the problem.
”If the teacher apologised to the Sudanese people and to all Muslims because she insulted the Prophet Muhammad then this is enough to end the matter,” he said.
”Anyone can make a mistake and Muslims are forgivers. She will be forgiven and God will be the judge.”
Many Sudanese had not heard the full story and thought she had made a model of an animal and named it Muhammad after Islam’s Prophet.
Rumours of riots, violent protests and cars burning near the school were rife but the streets were calm and there was no sign of demonstrations.
Not all were ready to forgive and forget, however.
”She is a teacher and should be teaching her pupils to be respectful and have morals but instead she is doing the opposite,” said Mohamed Toum, a law student. — Reuters