KHARTOUM Two leading British Muslims met the Sudanese president on Monday in an attempt to secure the early release of a British teacher jailed for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Mohammad.
Gillian Gibbons was sentenced on Thursday to 15 days in jail for insulting Islam to be followed by deportation.
Britain's ambassador to Sudan, Rosalind Marsden, said she was optimistic the meeting with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, which began at about 10:45 a.m., could lead to Gibbons's early release.
One of the British parliamentarians, Lord Ahmed, thanked Bashir for receiving him and his colleague, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi. "British Muslims play an important role in society," he told Bashir before reporters had to leave the room.
On Sunday night, Marsden said: "We very much hope that following the meeting with the president tomorrow morning the decision will be taken to release Mrs. Gibbons as soon as possible."
"I'm not 100 percent confident but I'm certainly more optimistic than I was, now that we know that the peers have been given the opportunity of a meeting with President Bashir tomorrow," she said.
Marsden said the private initiative by the two British Muslims offered the best hope for Gibbons's early release. The peers delayed their departure after Bashir confirmed a last-minute meeting following a two-day wait.
Gibbons let her pupils at Khartoum's private Unity High School pick their favorite name for a teddy bear as part of a project on animals in September. Twenty out of 23 of them chose Mohammad -- a popular boy's name in Sudan, as well as the name of Islam's Prophet.
Marsden described the incident, which has drawn international interest and worsened Britain's relations with Sudan, as a "cultural misunderstanding".
Sudan's influential Council of Muslim Scholars on Sunday urged the government not to pardon Gibbons, saying it would damage Khartoum's reputation with Muslims around the world.
SWORDS AND FLAGS
Hundreds took to the streets of the capital on Friday, many waving swords and Islamic flags, calling for her death.
"Retracting this light sentence ... would wound the sensibilities of the Muslims in Sudan," Council Spokesman al-Sheikh Mohammad Abdel Karim told Reuters.
"This is not a matter to be settled politically. This is a matter which goes to the very core of Muslims and their sensibilities."
Islam has often been used to mobilize young men to fight in Sudan's civil wars and Bashir, commander-in-chief of the Sudanese army, would be reluctant to alienate powerful hardline Islamic clerics.
The British embassy has heightened security, especially after Friday's protests.
But many ordinary Sudanese said they thought it was an innocent mistake which could be forgiven after an apology.
Marsden, who saw Gibbons on Sunday, said she was in high spirits. Her lawyer said Gibbons was being held in a clean and private environment at an undisclosed secure location.
Lawyers had initially said they expected her to be taken to Omdurman women's prison, which is run-down and overcrowded.
"It is clean, well guarded ... she came to me smiling if a little bit sad," Kamal al-Jazouli said. "She said she was sad because she never imagined her stay in Sudan would end up like this."
"She loved her pupils very much and they loved her. She said she would miss them when she goes outside Sudan."
(Editing by Tim Pearce)