British teacher jailed over teddy bear leaves Sudan

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A British teacher jailed in Sudan for letting her students name a teddy bear Mohammad left Khartoum for Britain on Monday after winning a pardon.

Gillian Gibbons, sentenced on Thursday to 15 days in jail followed by deportation for insulting Islam, was pardoned after an appeal by two prominent British Muslims to Sudan’s president for her early release.

They accompanied her as she left Khartoum airport, heavy with security after hundreds protested on Friday, demanding she be killed.

Gibbons apologized after the pardon announcement for any discomfort she had caused to the people of Sudan.

“I have been in Sudan for only four months but I have enjoyed myself immensely. I have encountered nothing but kindness and generosity from the Sudanese people,” she said, in a statement read by British Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, one of the peers who met Bashir.

“I have great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone. I am sorry if I caused any distress.”

Gibbons prompted a complaint after she let her pupils at Khartoum’s private Unity High School pick their favorite name for a teddy bear as part of a project in September.

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Twenty out of 23 of them chose Mohammad -- a popular boy’s name in Sudan, as well as the name of Islam’s Prophet.

The two British peers, Warsi and Lord Ahmed, had launched a private initiative to secure Gibbons’ early release. They delayed their departure after President Omar Hassan al-Bashir confirmed a last-minute meeting, following a two-day wait.

The staff of Unity High School where Gibbons worked shouted gleefully when they heard the news of the pardon.

“Everybody is so happy, everyone is just laughing now,” Robert Boulos, head of the school, told Reuters.

He said Gibbons would be welcome to rejoin the teaching staff if she wanted. Gibbons had been suspended following a school investigation into the affair.

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Earlier, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose country has had poor relations with Sudan for several years mainly due to the conflict in Darfur, said he was “delighted and relieved” to hear that Gibbons would be released shortly.

Sudan’s influential Council of Muslim Scholars had urged the government on Sunday not to pardon Gibbons, saying it would damage Khartoum’s reputation among Muslims around the world.

About 50 demonstrators shouting “There is no God but Allah” and “We will die for the Prophet Mohammad” handed over a petition to the embassy about the affair.

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“Retracting this light sentence ... would wound the sensibilities of the Muslims in Sudan,” Council Spokesman al-Sheikh Mohammad Abdel Karim said.

Many Sudanese said they thought it was an innocent mistake which could be forgiven after an apology.

Khartoum has had tense ties with the West in recent years over disagreements over how to handle Darfur, where the U.N. Security Council wants to deploy a joint U.N.-African force to help end the conflict and help displaced people return home.

Khartoum reluctantly agreed but is disputing many details. International experts say some 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have fled their homes in ethnic and political conflict in Darfur since a revolt by mostly non-Arab rebels in 2003.

Additional reporting by Andrew Heavens in Khartoum and Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Cynthia Jonston, Editing by Elizabeth Piper