British peers in Sudan to seek teddy teacher’s release

Two Muslim members of Britain’s House of Lords were in Khartoum on Saturday to seek the release of a British woman teacher jailed for insulting Islam after she named a teddy bear Muhammad.

Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi, from the upper house of Britain’s Parliament, were to meet with Sudanese officials in a bid to free Gillian Gibbons (54), who was jailed for 15 days on Thursday for insulting religion.

“They’re on a private visit with the [Sudanese] government,” a British embassy spokesperson said. “We welcome any efforts to help in the case, but we’re not involved in their programme.”

Thousands of worshippers rallied in central Khartoum after prayers on Friday, some calling for Gibbons to be executed after what they considered a too lenient sentence against the mother-of-two, who was arrested on November 25.

Gibbons was jailed for allowing pupils in her class of seven- and eight-year-olds to give the bear the same name as the Prophet Muhammad, as part of a school project.

She could have faced a maximum sentence of 40 lashes, six months in jail and a fine.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has called in the Sudanese ambassador to London twice for talks on the issue, underlining that Gibbons’s actions were the result of an “innocent misunderstanding”.

Sudanese and British authorities have declined to say where Gibbons is being held out of concern for a repetition of Friday’s angry scenes when thousands of men marched through central Khartoum calling for her execution.

The embassy spokesperson said that Gibbons had spoken to her son on Friday and that “she was happy about that and she’s still doing well”.

Amid efforts to head off a burgeoning diplomatic crisis with Khartoum — already at odds with the West over its actions in the war-torn region of Darfur — Britain’s key ally, the United States, described the jailing as “an overreaction”.

“There is a shared assessment that the punishment that has been imposed on this woman is in every way excessive,” State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack said on Friday.

“I don’t know what more we can say about the case, but clearly there is an overreaction from individuals involved in prosecuting this case against this woman.”

The trial itself took place behind a significant police barrier to avoid demonstrations which, as with last year’s publication of caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in Denmark, have previously led to violence.

The spokesperson for the Sudanese embassy in London blamed the Khartoum demonstrations after Friday prayers on members of “hard-line” mosques.

“There are many mosques and different groups congregating in different mosques … After prayer, people in particular mosques, not the mainstream, were the ones shouting the slogans to this effect,” said Khalid al-Mubarak.

Labour’s Lord Ahmed, a Pakistani-born businessman who became Britain’s first Muslim peer in 1998, and Baroness Warsi, a lawyer and member of the Conservatives’ shadow cabinet, will hold a news conference later on Saturday. — AFP

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