Teddy trouble: hopes rise for British teacher jailed in Sudan

Great Britain and Sudan are in high-level talks to free a British schoolteacher who was sentenced to 15 days imprisonment after allowing her class to name a teddy bear 'Mohammed.'

A delegation of Muslim members of the British House of Lords met with Sudan's president to seek the release of Gillian Gibbons, a British schoolteacher who is serving a 15-day sentence for allowing her class of 6- and 7-year-olds to name a teddy bear "Mohammed."

The Observer, a British Sunday paper, says that hopes for Gibbons's release are rising.

After hours of delicate negotiations between Sudanese diplomats and a UK delegation, hopes she could be released during the next few days grew as Lord Ahmed and Baroness [Sayeeda] Warsi prepared to meet President Omar al-Bashir, the only figure with the authority to lift the sentence, imposed for blasphemy....
Hours before yesterday's meetings between Ahmed and Warsi, the shadow minister for community cohesion, and Sudanese officials, Gibbons's chief defence lawyer said he was confident the primary school teacher would be pardoned. Kamal al-Gizouli admitted he would be surprised if the peers were not told by the President that 'we have dropped this charge'. Sources close to the President conceded the chances of securing the primary teacher's freedom were enhanced because of the Muslim-led UK delegation. However, hopes of a meeting yesterday between the President and peers appeared to be fading last night with the crucial negotiations postponed until today.

Gibbons was arrested last week after several parents complained to authorities that she had allowed her class of 23 students in Khartoum's Unity High School to vote on the name of a teddy bear. The class voted overwhelmingly to give the bear the same name as the seventh-century founder of Islam, whom Muslims venerate as the last messenger of God. Islamic law, which serves as the basis for Sudan's criminal code, views it as an insult to associate the name with an animal.

On Thursday, a Sudanese court sentenced Gibbons to 15 days in prison and deportation. The following day hundreds took to Khartoum's streets in protest of what they perceived as a lenient sentence for a crime that carries a punishment of up to six months in prison and 40 lashes carried out in public. The BBC observes that the demonstrations appeared unusually well-orchestrated, with pre-printed banners calling for "punishment." The International Herald Tribune notes that "There was no overt sign that the government organized the protest, but such a rally could not have taken place without at least official assent."

Following the demonstrations, Gibbons was transferred to a secret location. She says that she is being treated well.

The BBC notes that the incident may have long-term repercussions for relations between Britain and Sudan.

This whole incident has put an enormous strain on relations between Britain and Sudan and it is likely to have long lasting consequences that will not be easy to resolve.
The Sudanese Government reacted angrily to threats by the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown about possible sanctions over Darfur.
It had already taken great efforts by the British to start turning things round to get relations on a more even footing, but this incident is bound to set them back.
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