Sudan charges UK teacher with insulting Islam

KHARTOUM Wed Nov 28, 2007 2:22pm EST

1 of 4. British primary school teacher Gillian Gibbons is pictured in this undated photo downloaded from her Friends Reunited account. Gibbons was on Wednesday charged with insulting religion, state media said.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A British teacher detained in Sudan after her class called a teddy bear Mohammad was charged on Wednesday with insulting Islam in a move that sparked a diplomatic row between London and Khartoum.

Gillian Gibbons, 54, was also charged with inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs, Sudanese official media said. If convicted, she could face 40 lashes, a fine, or one year in jail.

"Khartoum North prosecution unit has completed its investigation and has charged the Briton Gillian (Gibbons) under Article 125 of the criminal code," the Sudanese news agency SUNA said, quoting a senior Justice Ministry official.

In London, a Foreign Office spokesman confirmed Gibbons had been charged and officials said Foreign Secretary David Miliband was calling in the Sudanese ambassador over the affair.

"We are surprised and disappointed by this development and the foreign secretary will summon as a matter of urgency the Sudanese ambassador to discuss this matter further," Prime Minister Gordon Brown's official spokesman said.

The matter will go before a court on Thursday and Gibbons, who is from Liverpool, is expected to appear.

A statement from the Sudanese embassy in London said the case came in response to parents' complaints.

"It is now a police case and the temptation to treat it as a media sensation should be resisted. We certainly do not wish to resort to 'trial by media'.

"British teachers are doing a great job in Sudan. We hope that Ms Gibbons' case will soon be resolved," it said.

Fellow teachers said they did not believe Gibbons had intended to insult Islam and had made an innocent mistake in choosing the name.

Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said in a statement released in London: "This is a disgraceful decision and defies common sense."

Earlier on Wednesday, three British embassy officials and a teaching colleague from the Unity High School where Gibbons worked were allowed to visit her for more than 90 minutes.

"I can confirm that we have met Ms. Gibbons and she said she is being treated well," said British consul Russell Phillips. "We remain in close contact with the Sudanese authorities on this case."

Gibbons was arrested after some parents complained about the bear being named after the Prophet Mohammad.

Teachers at the school said Gibbons had asked her class of 7-year-olds to choose their favorite name for the bear, and 20 of the 23 had voted for Mohammad.

WRITING EXERCISE

A 7-year-old student called Mohammad told Reuters this week he had suggested his own name be used for the bear.

In a writing exercise students were allowed to take the bear home and asked to keep a diary of what they did with the toy. These accounts were put together in a book entitled "My Name is Mohammad".

Leaflets were distributed in Khartoum calling for protests after Friday prayers, but many ordinary Sudanese said they were ready to forgive Gibbons if she apologized.

"When we heard we wanted to demonstrate immediately but some said we should wait and see what the concerned authorities find out," said Abdallah, a science student.

Shopkeeper Sabir Abdel Karim said that if Gibbons had not intended to insult Islam, an apology to Muslims would be enough to end the problem.

"Any one can make a mistake and Muslims are forgivers. She will be forgiven and God will be the judge."

Rumors of riots, violent protests and cars burning near the school were rife but the streets were calm and there was no sign of demonstrations.

Not everyone was ready to forgive and forget, however.

"She is a teacher and should be teaching her pupils to be respectful and have morals but instead she is doing the opposite," said Mohamed Toum, a law student.

(Editing by Giles Elgood and Robert Woodward)

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