KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A British teacher accused of insulting Muslims after her class called a teddy bear Mohammad was found guilty and sentenced to 15 days in jail on Thursday, her defense team said.
Gillian Gibbons, 54, was also ordered to be deported.
“She was found guilty of insulting religion and the sentence is 15 days (in jail) and deportation,” a member of the defense team Ali Ajib said after the trial in a Khartoum courtroom, which lasted less than a day.
In London, Britain’s foreign minister said he was “extremely disappointed” with the verdict and called in the Sudanese ambassador for an immediate explanation.
Another defense lawyer said Gibbons had already served five days of her sentence since her arrest on Sunday and she may not have to serve all the remaining 10 days. The judge said she could leave once she had a compulsory exit visa, they said.
Gibbons was charged on Wednesday with insulting Islam, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs because of the toy’s name. Under Sudan’s penal code, she could have faced 40 lashes, a fine, or up to one year in jail.
Robert Boulos, head of Unity high school where Gibbons worked, said: “We are happy with the verdict. It is fair. There were a lot of political pressures and attention.”
He added: “We will be very sad to lose her.”
Asked what he thought of the verdict, the head of Gibbons’s defense team, Kamal al-Jazouli, said: “It was not bad.”
The court finished the trial the day before Friday prayers, when protests were expected in the streets of Khartoum.
In court, judge Esmat Mohammed Youssef heard from the chief prosecutor and four witnesses from the prosecution. But the defense decided to rest after just two witnesses and Gibbons’s own testimony, convinced of the clarity of their case.
Teachers at the school say that calling the teddy bear Mohammad, the name of the prophet of Islam, was not her idea in the first place and that no parents objected when Gibbons sent parents circulars about a reading project which included the teddy bear as a fictional participant.
The bear was first introduced to the class in September.
Gibbons, wearing a long dark blue skirt and black blazer, looked bewildered as she entered the court on Thursday afternoon, guided by police as she weaved through the crowds of officials, journalists and onlookers.
Ajib said Gibbons was calm when the verdict was read, as if she had been expecting it.
She was taken straight to Omdurman women’s prison, a jail which is overcrowded and usually filled with women serving sentences for making and selling alcohol, illegal in mainly Muslim Sudan.
“We are extremely disappointed that the charges against Gillian Gibbons were not dismissed,” said British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. “Our clear view is that this is an innocent misunderstanding by a dedicated teacher.”
Sudan has had poor relations with Britain, the United States and most European countries for several years, mainly because of their disagreements over how to handle the conflict in the Darfur region in western Sudan.
The U.N. Security Council, of which Britain is a permanent member, wants to deploy a joint U.N.-African force to Darfur to restore order and help displaced people return home. Khartoum reluctantly agreed but is disputing many details.
“I‘m utterly disappointed with this decision. We have been calling on the Sudanese authorities to show leniency, that this was a case of an innocent oversight, a misunderstanding,” said Ibrahim Mogra of the Muslim Council of Britain, the country’s largest Muslim organization.
“The question that I would want the judiciary there and the authorities to ponder over is: How does this help the cause of Islam? What kind of message and image are we portraying about our religion and our culture?”
Reporting by Opheera McDoom and Andrew Heavens, additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London; Writing by Jonathan Wright; Editing by Tim Pearce