Gillian Gibbons, the British schoolteacher jailed in Sudan for allowing her class to name a teddy bear after the prophet "Muhammad," was pardoned Monday by Sudan's president and was under the protection of her country's embassy in Khartoum. Informed sources said she would be flown home to England later in the day.
The pardon came after a meeting between two Muslim members of Britain's House of Lords, Lord Nazir Ahmed and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
British prime minister Gordon Brown welcomed the news, saying in a press statement that "common sense has prevailed."
Through the course of Ms Gibbons' detention, I was glad to see Muslim support groups across the UK express strong support for her case.
I applaud the particular efforts of Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi in securing her freedom. I am also grateful to our officials for all their work behind the scenes.'
The Associated Press reports that Sudan's ambassador to Britain, Khalid al-Mubarak, was "overjoyed" at the news of Gibbons's release.
"She is a teacher who went to teach our children English and she has helped a great deal and I am very grateful," Mubarak said. "What has happened was a cultural misunderstanding, a minor one, and I hope she, her family and the British people won't be affected by what has happened."
Gibbons was arrested last week and sentenced to 15 days in prison after she allowed her class of 6- and 7-year-olds in Khartoum's Unity High School to vote on the name for the toy bear, which each of them had taken home and cared for over a weekend. The class voted overwhelmingly for "Muhammad." While that is one of the world's most common human names – and the second-most-popular in Britain – many Muslims consider it insulting to give the name to an animal. On Friday, armed demonstrators took to the streets in Khartoum to protest what they complained was a light sentence. Under Sudanese law, her crime could have carried a penalty of 40 lashes, a fine, and six months in prison. Some of the same protesters massed in front of the British Embassy Monday after the pardon, saying it had wounded their sensibilities.
During her incarceration Gibbons was held in an anonymous building in Khartoum's suburbs. The Times of London described the conditions there as vastly superior to those under which ordinary Sudanese prisoners live.
She had a bed, which is not normally provided in Sudan's cockroach-ridden jails, and as much food as she wanted, in stark contrast to the rest of the prison system, where relatives must bring in food and water every day. . .
Elteyb Hag Ateya, a director of Khartoum University's peace research institute, said that the government was keen to limit damage from the affair. "Whenever I speak to anyone in government, they say it is a nightmare and they do not want to hear about it again. They do not want any aftermath like the lady going home and holding a press conference complaining about conditions."
The New York Times noted that the teddy bear affair comes at a difficult time for President Bashir, who is seeking to balance the demands of Western governments with those of Muslim hard-liners.
In a way, Mr. Bashir was caught in the middle — or at least the Sudanese government – tried to make it look that way. By letting Ms. Gibbons out early, he risks provoking Muslim hardliners in his country, who are among his key supporters.
But the case hit his desk at a time when United Nations officials and Western governments are increasingly complaining that Sudan is obstructing an expanded peacekeeping force for Darfur, the war-torn region of western Sudan.
Apparently, Mr. Bashir calculated that he didn't need to isolate his government any further.
The incident has already attracted at least one entrepreneur. Online shoppers can purchase a plush bear, Muhammad the Tolerance Teddy, for $20.