British teacher convicted of insulting Islam in Sudan

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Friday, November 30, 2007


Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher arrested in Sudan on Sunday for naming a teddy bear Muhammad, was charged on Wednesday, and tried, convicted, and sentenced yesterday to 15 days imprisonment for "insulting religion." The 54-year-old mother of two avoided a possible 40 lashes, but will be deported at the end of her sentence, which will run from the date of her arrest.

Following the speedy trial, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband summoned Sudanese ambassador Omer Siddig to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to explain the verdict. During the 45 minute meeting Mr Miliband expressed "in the strongest terms" the government's concern at the sentence, and spoke by telephone to the Sudanese acting foreign minister.

The trial

According to early reports, parents had complained that Ms Gibbons had insulted the Prophet Muhammad, but when she was charged on Wednesday, this was revealed to be false. It was Sara Khawad, a secretary at the Unity High School where Ms Gibbons taught, who had complained to the Education Ministry and provoked Ms Gibbons' arrest last weekend.

Early Thursday morning, as vehicles filled with riot police watched the area and the press and colleagues of Ms Gibbons were denied access to the criminal courthouse in Khartoum, the trial got underway. The head of her legal team, Kamal Djizouri, was also denied access for a time.

Ms Khawad was one of four witnesses from the prosecution. Also testifying against Ms Gibbons was an accountant from the school.

Gillian Gibbons wept as she testified that she never wanted to insult Islam. She had allowed her six and seven year old pupils to vote on the name for a teddy bear that was part of a class project. The children had voted by 20 votes to 3 to name the bear Muhammad.

At the end of a seven-hour trial, the court found her guilty of "insulting the faith of Muslims". The Judge, Mohammed Youssef, rejected prosecution calls for a harsher sentence on the charge of "inciting religious hatred", which carries a punishment of up to 40 lashes, six months in prison and a fine.

After the trial, Ms Gibbons was taken to the crowded women's prison in Omdurman to begin the remaining 11 days of her sentence. Although the prison is more comfortable than many in Sudan, conditions are not good, and Ms Gibbons will have to rely on wellwishers to supply her with food and water.

An appeal against the sentence is expected.

Reactions in Sudan

The Assembly of the Ulemas, a body of Islamic clerics, said on Wednesday that Ms Gibbon's action was "another ring in the circles of plotting against Islam", and called for the harshest penalties to be applied. After Ms Gibbons was charged, a pickup truck drove through the Sudanese capital calling for protests against the alleged insult.

Some members of Ms Gibbons' defense team reported receiving death threats.

The authorities quickly scheduled the trial, and issued instructions to clerics not to deliver inflammatory sermons at Friday prayers about the case or against foreigners.

Major General Abdeen al-Tahir of the Khartoum police stated that protests would not be permitted.

After the trial, Ms Gibbons' chief lawyer described the verdict as "not bad", and her colleagues expressed relief that the sentence was not harsher.

The lawyer stated that the complaint was an act of revenge. Isam Abu Hasabu, director of the school's Parent-Teacher Association, claimed Khawad had been arguing with the principal before the incident.

The school, which according to press reports has issued a public apology and sacked Ms Gibbons, has been closed for security reasons since her arrest. The director said he was happy with the verdict: "It is fair. There were a lot of political pressures and ­attention."

Omar El Faroug Hassan Shumena, a legal consultant in Khartoum, said that he believed the judge had concluded the trial in a single day to reduce the chance of disorder after Friday Prayers.

International reaction

Catherine Wolthuizen, chief executive of Fair Trials International, said Mrs Gibbons' punishment was still "harsh". She said: "It was a very speedy justice process.

After Ms Gibbons was charged, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) stated that they were appalled at the decision and called on the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, to intervene to secure Ms Gibbons' release.

After the sentence, they further stated:

"This case should have required only simple common sense to resolve. It is unfortunate that the Sudanese authorities were found wanting in this most basic of qualities. They grossly overreacted in this sad affair and this episode. Gillian should never have been arrested, let alone charged and convicted of committing a crime. We hope that Gillian will be able to return home without much further delay."

Ibrahim Mogra, also of the MCB, stated: "I'm utterly disappointed with this decision... 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?"

Mike Blakemore of Amnesty International said: "The sentence is a mockery of justice and Amnesty International consider Gillian to be a prisoner of conscience. She should be immediately and unconditionally released."

Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, said: "I can't see any justification for this at all. I think that this is an absurdly disproportionate response to what is at best a minor cultural faux pas. And I think that it's done the Sudanese government no credit whatever."

According to the BBC, the press in Sudan and the Middle East have largely ignored the case, but bloggers from Sudan have heaped scorn on the Sudanese authorities.



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