Outrage in Sudan Over British Teacher

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Mohamed Nureldin Abdalla / Reuters

Sudanese Muslims burn a picture of British teacher Gillian Gibbons during a demonstration in Khartoum, Sudan, November 30, 2007.

Demonstrators wielding ceremonial swords took to the streets after Friday prayers in Sudan's desert capital to vent their anger at an English teacher jailed because her class named a teddy bear Mohammed. A crowd of about 1,000 young men streamed out of mosques to gather outside Khartoum's presidential palace, later marching to the British Embassy and burning newspapers bearing images of 54-year-old Gillian Gibbons. The crowd demanded that the teacher be executed following her conviction on charges of blasphemy. Gibbons was sentenced to 15 days in prison; she had faced a maximum of 40 lashes or a year in prison under Sudan's legal code, which is based on British law but modified to include sharia punishments. Chanting, "Shame, shame on the U.K.," the demonstrators quickly turned on a handful of British reporters, who were forced to flee.

Gibbons' sentence also did not satisfy some clerics. Sheikh Abdul-Jalil al-Karuri, imam of Ash-Shahid mosque and an adviser to President Omar al-Bashir, said he was not surprised that people had decided to demonstrate over what he deemed a lenient sentence. "I was expecting more because this is a serious case and the court just gave her 15 days. She has done five already so she can leave any time soon," he said.

British officials are working behind the scenes to expedite the release of the former deputy head teacher, who remains behind bars. Riot police looked on as the protesters marched from the palace to Unity High School, where Gibbons had taught, and then on to the British embassy. But the demonstration was isolated, and most of Khartoum remained peaceful. Many Sudanese families spent the afternoon in the city's small parks along the Nile River as usual.

Teachers at Unity High have stood by their colleague, noting that the first complaint came only last week despite the fact that parents had been aware of the class bear's name since September.

During an eight-hour court proceeding on Thursday, it emerged that a school secretary had been the first to raise the alarm. Teachers have alleged that Gibbons was the victim of a staffer trying to discredit the school rather than an offended parent.

Gibbons is being kept at a secure location, although British officials are concerned that demonstrators could try to track her down. "She has been visited by consular staff today and is fine," said a spokesman for the British embassy.

The case is an embarrassment for the Sudanese government, whose policies in Darfur have helped make it an international pariah. But the government is hamstrung by extremist elements, who will capitalize on any perception that Khartoum is bowing to British pressure, said Professor Elteyb Hag Ateya, director of Khartoum University's peace research institute.

"There is a sort of "who is the best Muslim?" competition to this whole thing which makes it difficult for the government to be seen to back down," he said.

Baron Ahmed, Britain's first Muslim peer, is due to arrive in Sudan on Saturday morning in an attempt to secure Gibbons' release. But for now she remains locked in a room at a secret location, caught in the middle of the diplomatic wrangle.