'Teddy bear' teacher free, flying home
A British teacher jailed for letting her students name a teddy bear Muhammad as part of writing project headed home Monday after being pardoned...
The Associated Press
KHARTOUM, Sudan — A British teacher jailed for letting her students name a teddy bear Muhammad as part of writing project headed home Monday after being pardoned — ending a case that set off an international outcry and angered many moderate Muslims.
The incident was the latest in a tense relationship between the West and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, an Islamic hard-liner who has been accused by the United Nations of dragging his feet on the deployment of peacekeepers to the country's war-torn Darfur region.
Gillian Gibbons, jailed for more than a week, was freed after two Muslim members of Britain's House of Lords met with al-Bashir and the teacher sent the president a statement saying she didn't mean to offend anyone with her class project.
"I have a great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone," Gibbons said in the statement, which was released by al-Bashir's office and read to journalists by British Baroness Sayeeda Warsi.
"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 wrote.
Al-Bashir insisted Gibbons had a fair trial, in which she was convicted of insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad, but the president agreed to pardon her during the meeting with the British delegation, said Ghazi Saladdin, a senior presidential adviser.
The 54-year-old Gibbons left the country Monday evening, British Embassy spokesman Omar Daair told The Associated Press. She was believed to be on an Emirates flight to Dubai that took off moments before Daair spoke and was expected in London on Tuesday morning.
Her family in Liverpool, England, waited with beer, wine and flowers, ready to welcome her home.
"It's been a strange old week, very stressful and particularly bad for the family, but now she's coming home, fingers crossed," her son, John Gibbons, told reporters. "If this week has taught me anything, it is that anything can happen."
Riot police deployed around Khartoum's airport terminal as the Lords delegation arrived, apparently accompanying Gibbons on the flight, with the British ambassador on hand to see them off. She had been held at a secret location since protesters marched Friday demanding her death.
What Britain and Gibbons' supporters said was a misunderstanding over the teddy bear escalated into a diplomatic flap between London and Khartoum — and the show of outrage in Sudan that puzzled many in the West.
Hard-line Muslim clerics here denounced Gibbons, saying she intentionally aimed to insult Islam. A day after her Thursday trial, several thousand Sudanese massed in central Khartoum to demand that Gibbons be executed. Many of the demonstrators carried swords and clubs.
But it was never clear how deep anger over the incident really flowed among Sudanese, although the affair was influenced by the ideology that al-Bashir's Islamic regime has long instilled — a mix of anti-colonialism, religious fundamentalism and a sense that the West is besieging Islam.
"Common sense has prevailed," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in a statement expressing delight over Gibbons release.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband praised Gibbons, saying that "she's shown very good British grit in very difficult circumstances."
Gibbons, who was arrested Nov. 25, was sentenced to 15 days in prison and deportation under Sudan's Islamic Sharia law for having the teddy bear project for her class of 7-year-olds at the private Unity High School. She could have been punished with up to 40 lashes, six months in prison and a fine.
In the project, she had a student bring in a teddy bear, then asked her pupils to vote on a name for it. They chose Muhammad, a common name among Muslim men. The students took the bear home individually to write diary entries on it, which were then compiled into a book with the bear's picture on it and the title "My Name is Muhammad," school officials said.
Gibbons' defenders said the project was a common one in British schools.
The trial was sparked when a school secretary complained to the Education Ministry that Gibbons aimed to insult Islam's prophet.
The private English-language school, with elementary to high school levels, was founded by Christian groups, but 90 percent of its students are Muslim, mostly from upper-class Sudanese families.
Lord Nazir Ahmed, part of the British delegation that met with al-Bashir, said the case was an "unfortunate misunderstanding" and stressed that Britain respected Islam. He added that he hoped "the relations between our two countries will not be damaged by this incident."
Many Muslim groups in the West had sharply criticized Gibbons' arrest. On Monday, Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, welcomed her pardon.
"Gillian should never have been arrested in the first place, let alone held in jail. She had done nothing wrong," he said. "It will be wonderful to see her back in the U.K. I am sure she will be welcomed by both Muslims and non-Muslims after her quite terrible ordeal at the hands of the Sudanese authorities."
Muslim scholars generally agree that intent is a key factor in determining if someone has violated Islamic rules against insulting the prophet.
But hard-liners in Sudan touted the incident as part of a Western plot to undermine Islam, echoing accusations from controversy raised early in the year by the publication of cartoon caricatures of the prophet in European newspapers.
Al-Bashir's opponents in Sudan have said his government likely let the Gibbons case move forward to stir up anti-Western anger at a time when he is resisting allowing Western peacekeepers in the Darfur peacekeeping force. He has said he will bar any Scandinavians from the force since newspapers in their countries ran the prophet cartoons.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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