Sudan pardons UK teacher over teddy-bear insult

A British woman jailed in Sudan for insulting religion by naming a teddy bear after the Prophet Muhammad was to be released on Monday after being granted a presidential pardon.

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir signed the pardon after meeting two British Muslim peers who flew to Khartoum on a mercy mission to petition for Gillian Gibbons’s early release after she was jailed for 15 days on Thursday.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown welcomed the news, saying he was “delighted and relieved” and that Gibbons would now be handed over to the British embassy in Khartoum “after what must have been a difficult ordeal”.

“She was pardoned thanks to the mediation of Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi. She will be released in about an hour,” presidential adviser Mahjoub Fadl Badri told Agence France-Presse as Bashir met the Muslim peers at the Republican Palace.

Gibbons, a mother of two who has only been in Sudan a few months, was arrested eight days ago after parents at the exclusive English school where she taught complained that she allowed young children to name the bear Muhammad.

The British Muslims, from Britain’s upper House of Parliament, thanked Sudan and all those working behind the scenes for the pardon, and conveyed apologies from Gibbons for any offence she may have unwittingly caused.

“In the name of Allah the compassionate and the most merciful, I would like to begin by thanking the president for granting this pardon. I want to thank everyone involved who has given help,” Lord Nazir Ahmed told reporters.

“As British Muslim parlementarians, we, Baroness Warsi and myself, feel proud we have been able to secure Gillian Gibbons’s release.

“We hope that British aid to Sudan continues and relations between our two countries will not be damaged by this incident. In fact, this should be a way to strengthen relations.”

Reading out a statement on the teacher’s behalf, Baroness Warsi said Gibbons was deeply sorry for any offence caused and that she had great respect for Islam.

“I have been in Sudan only four months but I have enjoyed myself immensely. 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’m sorry if I caused any distress,” she said, adding that she would “miss terribly” the friends she had made in Sudan.

“I’m very sad to think they have been distressed by these events. I want to express my thanks to all,” Warsi added.

Wearing a traditional white gown and turban, Bashir received the peers in a relaxed atmosphere at a plush room of the palace, which was decorated with white gilt-upholstered sofas, a giant Sudanese flag and flowers.

There was no immediate indication of when precisely the 54-year-old teacher — being held at a secret location in Khartoum — would be released, or whether she would be making a public appearance before being deported back to Britain.

Her arrest and jail sentence sparked outrage in Britain and a diplomatic crisis between London and Khartoum, further straining relations already frayed over nearly five years of war in Darfur.

“This is a case that was an unfortunate, unintentional and innocent misunderstanding,” said Ahmed.

Sudan enforces Islamic Sharia law in Khartoum, where alcohol is banned and most women dress modestly.

Thousands of people demonstrated on Friday after the main Muslim prayers in Khartoum, the conservative capital of the former British colony, against what they considered Gibbons’s lenient sentence, with some calling for her death.

For devout Muslims, any physical depiction of Muhammad is blasphemous and strictly forbidden.

Being found guilty of insulting religion and inciting hatred in Sudan is punishable by up to six months in prison, 40 lashes and a fine.

Before the presidential pardon, Sudan’s Committee of Muslim scholars had been critical of any early release for Gibbons given that she had been handed such a light sentence. — AFP

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