Teacher jailed over teddy bear returns to U.K. Sudan court ruled she’d insulted Islam for letting kids call toy ‘Muhammad’
(MSNBC, AP & Reuters) LONDON – A British teacher jailed in Sudan for letting her students name a teddy bear Muhammad as part of a writing project arrived home Tuesday after being pardoned and said she was “very upset to think that I might have caused offense to people.”
Gillian Gibbons told reporters after arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport that she was looking forward to seeing her family and friends.
“I’m just an ordinary middle-aged primary school teacher. I went out there to have an adventure, and got a bit more than I bargained for,” Gibbons said at a brief news conference.
“I don’t think anyone could have imagined it would snowball like this,” she added.
Gibbons, 54, jailed for more than a week, was freed after two Muslim members of Britain’s House of Lords met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and the teacher sent the president a statement saying she didn’t mean to offend anyone with her class project.
“It has been an ordeal but I’d like want you to know that I was well-treated in prison and everybody was very kind to me,” she said. “I was very sorry to leave Sudan. I had a fabulous time there. It’s a really lovely place, and I managed to see some of the beautiful countryside while I was there.”
Gibbons said she didn’t want her experience “to put anyone off going to Sudan — in fact I know of a lovely school that needs a new Year Two teacher.”
The incident was the latest in a tense relationship between the West and Sudan’s president, 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.
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.
Gibbons left Sudan Monday night, flying via Dubai to London.
“I’d like to thank the government for all they have done, the hard work behind the scenes, especially the two peers who went out there,” said her 25-year-old son, John. “Everyone’s been really great.”
When asked her feelings about the offense she was accused of, Gibbons said: “I don’t think I really know enough about it to comment really. It’s a very difficult area and a very delicate area.”
“I was very upset to think that I might have caused offense to people,” she added.
Gibbons said she learned of the intense media coverage of the story on her second day in prison.
Asked if she was terrified of prison, she said: “That’s an understatement.”
“I was treated the same as any other Sudanese prisoner in that you were given the bare minimum,” she said. “Then I was moved to another prison and there the Ministry of the Interior sent me a bed which is possibly the best present I’ve ever had.”
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 in Sudan 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.
‘My Name is Muhammad’
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.
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