Teddy bear teacher appears in court as Islamic fanatics demand execution
(Evening Standard) A major security operation was under way today as a British teacher charged with inciting hatred and insulting religion was brought before a court in Sudan.
Trucks protected by armed police transported Gillian Gibbons from her cell at the CID headquarters in Khartoum where she had been kept in custody following her arrest on Sunday for allowing pupils to name a school teddy bear Mohammed.
Security was also tight at the city’s court building as fears that extremists might stage a kidnap attempt ran high.
Mrs Gibbons, looking tired and distressed and wearing a dark blue jacket and blue dress, was not handcuffed.
Reports have suggested she could learn her fate by 5pm today.
Before the hearing began the public and press were cleared from the court room but only moments later the case was adjourned for two hours.
The prosecutor-general said Mrs Gibbons, whose case has drawn international condemnation, can expect a swift and fair trial under Sudanese law.
Mrs Gibbons faces 40 lashes and a year in jail after after being charged with insulting Islam. Reports today suggested the complaint against her had been made by a secretary at the school.
She was charged after behind-the-scenes political moves to avoid a court case collapsed amid growing Islamic anger in the east African country.
A Sudanese official said it was “unlikely” that Mrs Gibbons would be convicted.
A powerful Sudanese newspaper urged authorities to call a hardline Islamist leader linked to Osama bin Laden to give evidence at her trial, to stress how offensive the case was to Muslims.
Extreme Islamic groups said Mrs Gibbons “must die” and urged Muslims to hold street protests after prayers tomorrow.
The Muslim Council of Britain said it was “appalled” at the decision by Sudan.
Legal sources in Khartoum said it is possible the case could be dealt with in a single hearing.
One lawyer said that if Mrs Gibbons pleads guilty and makes profuse apologies, she could emerge with a “relatively minor penalty”, such as a hefty fine or a jail term equivalent to the four days she has already spent in custody.
But he warned that rising anger in Sudan, as news of the case spread, might affect the court’s decision.
Yesterday, Mrs Gibbons met British consular officials in the jailhouse where she is being held. She looked tired and pale as she was escorted across the dusty courtyard with a blanket around her shoulders.
Mrs Gibbons, a former deputy head in Liverpool, moved to Khartoum in August to fulfil her dream of teaching abroad after her marriage broke down last year.
The mother of two grown-up children was arrested on Sunday after parents were said to have complained she had insulted Islam’s prophet by naming a teddy bear Mohammed as part of a class project.
However, a boy of seven came forward on Tuesday to say it was “all his fault”, as he and his classmates at the Unity High School had voted to call the bear Mohammed after his own name.
He insisted his teacher had not intended to insult Islam.
Mrs Gibbons technically faces three charges – insulting Islam, inciting religious hatred and contempt for religious beliefs – each of which carries a maximum penalty of 40 lashes and a year in jail. But it is believed she will stand trial on only one.
Abdul Daem Zumrawi, the Justice Ministry’s undersecretary, said: “What will be applied is at the discretionary power of the judge.”
Mrs Gibbons’s former husband, Peter Gibbons, 54, said last night that he and their children Jessica, 27, and John, 25, had been horrified at the news that she had been charged.
“The children are not coping very well, they are upset,” he said. “We are praying and relying on the Foreign Office and the embassy out there.
“My son is waiting on advice from the embassy to see if it’s possible to go over there.
“Gillian is an innocent in all this, she would not want to cause offence to anybody.”
One of Khartoum’s biggest papers, the pro-government Akhir Lahza – Last Moment – said Hassan Al Turabi, once seen as the Islamic ideologue behind the government, should be called as an expert witness in the case to stress how offensive the teacher’s action had been.
The religious and Islamist political leader is thought to have been instrumental in institutionalising Sharia law in the north of the country.
He personally invited Osama bin Laden to Sudan and the Al Qaeda leader based his operations there from around 1990 to 1996.
The newspaper’s editor-in-chief also called for politicians to avoid meddling in religious affairs and not to argue that Sudanese foreign relations would be affected.
At the same time, Sudanese legal scholars warned that an increase in rhetoric would make it difficult for a deal to be done quietly behind the scenes.
Professor Eltyeb Hag Ateya, director of Khartoum University’s peace research institute, said Sudanese president Umar al-Bashir would not want to be seen to back down in the face of Western pressure.
“One of main criticisms of the government is that they are giving too much away to foreigners,” he said.
“If imams at Friday prayers turn this into a much bigger thing, then no one will listen to the facts.”
Sudan’s legal system is based on laws introduced during British colonial rule, but aspects of Sharia law were incorporated in 1991.
Sudanese reaction to the case had been muted until yesterday, when demonstrations took place at one of Khartoum’s student campuses.
Speakers took turns to denounce Mrs Gibbons, brandishing a newspaper bearing her photograph. A stateinment circulated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood – a multinational Sunni Islamist movement and the world’s most influential political Islamist group – also condemned her actions.
“We want to express our boiling anger and deep sorrow about this case caused by this British teacher,” it said.
“We want to tell you that the majority of Sudanese are Muslims so we love our Prophet Mohammed so much and we decry this careless way of dealing with our beloved Prophet.”
One of its authors, 27-year- old Elsheikh El Nour, added: “If she made an innocent mistake and did not mean Mohammed the Prophet (when naming the bear) there is no problem.
“But if she did mean Mohammed the Prophet, she must die.”
Leaflets distributed outside Khartoum’s Great Mosque urged Muslims to march tomorrow in protest at Mrs Gibbons’ actions.
They condemned what they described as “flagrant aggression” against the Prophet Mohammed and asked imams to address the subject Friday prayers.
The leaflets added: “What has been done by this infidel lady is considered a matter of contempt and an insult to Muslims’ feelings and also the pollution of children’s mentality as an attempt to wipe their identity.”
The Muslim Council of Britain was furious at the decision to charge Mrs Gibbons.
“This is disgraceful and defies common sense,” said Secretary-General Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari. “There was clearly no intention on the part of the teacher to deliberately insult the Islamic faith.
“The children in Mrs Gibbons’s class and their parents have all testified as to her innocence in this matter. We call upon the Sudanese President, Umar al-Bashir, to intervene in this case without delay to ensure that Mrs Gibbons is freed from this quite shameful ordeal.”
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