UK Presses Sudan to Release Teacher Held Over Teddy Bear 'Blasphemy'

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - A Sudanese diplomat in London has raised hopes that a British teacher accused of blasphemy over a teddy bear named Mohammed may be freed.

Sudanese Embassy spokesman Khalid al Mubarak told BBC radio he was sure the case against Gillian Gibbons would be resolved amicably. "Our relationship with Britain is so good that we wouldn't like such a minute event to be overblown," he said.

But in Khartoum, a justice ministry official told the AFP news agency that the case was still under investigation by the country's chief prosecutor, and that if new elements emerge, "the charges could become more serious" -- prompting British media to speculate about the possibility that the 54-year-old teacher could face a sedition-related charge.

The incident looks set to cause a diplomatic row between Britain and its former colony. Prime Minister Gordon Brown told a monthly press conference Tuesday that British authorities were in contact with Sudanese police and government to "ascertain that she is safe and well and to clarify the position so that she can be released soon."

Relations between the West and Islamist President Omar al-Bashir's regime are already strained over the conflict in Darfur, which has dragged on for almost four years and cost more than 200,000 lives.

According to British media reports, Gibbons has been in custody since Sunday, following a complaint lodged by parents of a child at the English-language independent school for Christian and Muslim children in Khartoum where she teaches.

As part of a class project, Gibbons had asked her seven-year-old pupils to come up with a name for a teddy bear, which each child had taken home for a weekend to keep a diary about its activities. They chose "Mohammed" -- the name of Islam's prophet but also a common name in the Muslim world.

The semi-official Sudan Media Center was first to report the news, saying in a brief dispatch at the weekend that the woman was "arrested for insulting prophet Mohammed" after the naming of the teddy bear "was met with wide condemnation by guardians of the students."

British media say she faces the possibility of six months' imprisonment and 40 lashes if convicted on charges of insulting or degrading a religion.

However, according to chapter 21 of Sudan's penal code, which was amended in 2003, the offenses of "insulting or exciting contempt of" religion, abuse of religious belief, or defiling an object held sacred, each carry prison terms of up to three years.

Under "sedition" offenses (chapter 10), anyone convicted of excit[ing] hatred or contempt against any class of persons such a way as to endanger public peace" faces imprisonment of up to five years.

The case has caused a stir in Britain, where senior opposition Conservative lawmaker William Hague urged the government to pressure Khartoum to release Gibbons immediately.

Muslim Council of Britain Secretary-General Muhammad Abdul Bari also called on the Sudanese government to free Gibbons, saying that "it is obvious that no malice was intended."

The story is getting front-page treatment in the British press and has sparked lively online media debates.

"One hopes that the prospect of a half-naked 54-year-old English woman being lashed until she bleeds in a square in downtown Khartoum is not something that the British Government will tolerate for more than five seconds," columnist Jan Moir wrote in the Daily Telegraph Wednesday.

"For we have all had enough of this inflamed, reheated, religious outrage, cooked up by extremists to advance their own cause at the expense of everything else, including reason."

Writing in the mass-circulation tabloid, The Sun , contributor Anila Baig -- a Muslim -- said the news from Khartoum "reinforces the image of Muslims as intolerant barbarians."

"But the truth is Muslims are not offended by a teddy being called Mohammed -- they're offended that this story has got so much publicity."

Baig said Islamic laws were open to abuse in countries like Sudan. "Having a dispute with someone? Just accuse them of blasphemy. Simple."

Many Muslims are sensitive about anything they consider to be demeaning towards Islam and Mohammed, as witnessed by the angry reaction in the Islamic world over a Danish newspaper's publication two years ago of a dozen cartoons caricaturing the prophet.

See also:
Swedish Artist's Mohammed Sketch Prompts Another Muslim Uproar (Aug. 31, 2007)
Growing Islamic Anger Over Mohammed Cartoons (Jan. 3, 2006)
Fast-Food Company to Drop Logo After Muslims Gripe (Sept. 19, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow