British teacher in Sudan court in teddy-bear case
A British teacher accused of insulting Muslims after her class called a teddy bear Mohammad spent more than five hours behind closed doors in a Khartoum courtroom on Thursday as a judge heard the case against her.
In London, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the Sudanese ambassador he was concerned about the teacher, 54-year-old Gillian Gibbons, who was arrested and charged after one of the school staff reported her to the authorities.
"We believe that this was an innocent misunderstanding," Miliband said in a statement.
A member of Gibbons's defence team quoted the judge as saying he wanted to finish the case on Thursday and court sources said the session could be over by 5pm GMT.
Sudanese state media said on Wednesday that Gibbons faced charges of insulting Islam, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs because of the toy's name. If convicted, she could face 40 lashes, a fine or one year in jail.
While Gibbons was inside, Sudanese authorities just outside the building gave a man about 20 lashes with a stiff leather whip, metres away from where the British consul, Russell Phillips, was sitting waiting on a chair. What offence the victim had committed was not clear.
In court, Judge Mohammed Youssef listened to two accounts -- one from school secretary Sarah Khawad, who filed the first complaint about the teddy bear's name, and one from the official who has been investigating the case, court sources said.
Plans to leave Sudan
In a sign that the Sudanese authorities might accept an apology and drop the charges, the spokesperson for the Sudanese embassy in London said he thought that Gibbons had made an innocent mistake in endorsing the children's choice of a name.
"I hope the charges will be dropped and I hope she will be released, but I also hope that people will understand that the whole thing came about because of insensitivity on her part," spokesperson Khaled al-Mubarak told the BBC.
He added: "She is a mature teacher. She has had many students. She must have read the newspapers. She must have been aware of what's happening in the world."
Teachers at the school say that calling the teddy bear Mohammad, the name of the Prophet of Islam, was not her idea in the first place and that no parents objected when Unity High School sent parents circulars about a reading project that included the teddy bear as a fictional participant.
A member of the defence team who asked not to be named said Gibbons intends to leave Sudan at once if she is acquitted or receives a non-custodial sentence.
Sudan has had poor relations with Britain, the United States and most European countries for several years, mainly because of their disagreements over how to handle the conflict in the Darfur region in western Sudan.
The United Nations Security Council, of which Britain is a permanent member, wants to deploy a joint UN-African force to Darfur to restore order and help displaced people return home. Khartoum reluctantly agreed but is disputing many details.
Miliband said in his statement: "The British government fully respects the faith of Islam and Britain has a long-standing tradition of religious tolerance." He added: "Britain has also enjoyed close relations with Sudan for many years based on our mutual respect for each other's religious and cultural values."
Several British Muslim groups said they support Gibbons and the Sudanese authorities should back off.
"This [charging Gibbons] is a disgraceful decision and defies common sense. There was clearly no intention on the part of the teacher to deliberately insult the Islamic faith," said Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary general of the MCB, Britain's largest Muslim organisation. -- Reuters
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