Teacher sentenced to 15 days in prison and deportation after insulting Muslim faith

Sudanese anti-riot policemen stand alert outside Khartoum court in Sudan on Thursday, where British teacher Gillian Gibbons was tried. Abd Raouf, The Associated Press

AP

Sudanese anti-riot policemen stand alert outside Khartoum court in Sudan on Thursday, where British teacher Gillian Gibbons was tried. Abd Raouf, The Associated Press

KHARTOUM, Sudan – A Sudanese court convicted a British teacher Thursday of insulting Islam for letting her students name a teddy bear Muhammad and sentenced her to 15 days in prison, avoiding a heavier punishment of 40 lashes. The teacher wept in court, insisting she never meant to offend.

The sentence and seven-hour trial were aimed at swiftly resolving the case, which had put Sudan’s government in an embarrassing position – facing the anger of Great Britain on one side and potential trouble from powerful Islamic hard-liners on the other.

The defense said the case was sparked by a school secretary with a grudge. But it escalated as Muslim clerics sought to drum up public outrage against what it called a Western plot to insult Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and demanding Gibbons be punished.

Officials were trying to tamp down public anger in the face of hard-line calls for protests after Muslim prayers Friday.

The government, which has often touted its Islamic credentials, encouraged past protests about cartoons seen as insulting the prophet published in European papers. But its moves now suggested it feared the case could hurt its reputation in the West.

The teacher, Gillian Gibbons, “was in tears” when she testified in court Thursday, a member of her defense team, Abdel-Khaliq Abdallah, told The Associated Press.

“She said that she never wanted to insult Islam” by allowing the children to name the stuffed toy Muhammad, a common name among Muslim men, the lawyer said, speaking outside the courtroom. Media were barred from the chamber.

Gibbons, 54, was found guilty of “insulting the faith of Muslims” and sentenced to 15 days in jail, followed by deportation, said Ali Mohammed Ajab, a human rights lawyer on the defense team. The charge is a lesser offense in the article of the criminal code under which she was tried, which includes several possible charges.

Prosecutors had pressed for conviction on a heavier charge under the same article – inciting religious hatred, which carries a punishment of up to 40 lashes, six months in prison and a fine.

A judge confirmed the verdict to reporters but refused to give his name.

Great Britain said it was “extremely disappointed with the sentence.” London had been conducting delicate diplomatic efforts to ensure she received no punishment for what it said was a “misunderstanding.”

In London, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband summoned the Sudanese ambassador after the verdict and sentence. During the meeting, Miliband “expressed in the strongest terms our concern at the continued detention of Gillian Gibbons,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.

Associated Press writer Mohamed Osman contributed to this report