KHARTOUM, Sudan – A British teacher jailed for letting her students name a teddy bear Muhammad as part of writing project headed home Monday after being pardoned – ending a case that set off an international outcry and angered many moderate Muslims.
The incident was the latest in a tense relationship between the West and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, an Islamic hard-liner who has been accused by the United Nations of dragging his feet on the deployment of peacekeepers to the country’s war-torn Darfur region.
Gillian Gibbons, jailed for more than a week, was freed after two Muslim members of Britain’s House of Lords met with al-Bashir and the teacher sent the president a statement saying she didn’t mean to offend anyone with her class project.
“I have a great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone,” Gibbons said in the statement, which was released by al-Bashir’s office and read to journalists by British Baroness Sayeeda Warsi.
“I am looking forward to seeing my family and friends, but I am very sorry that I will be unable to return to Sudan,” Gibbons wrote.
Al-Bashir insisted Gibbons had a fair trial, in which she was convicted of insulting Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, but the president agreed to pardon her during the meeting with the British delegation, said Ghazi Saladdin, a senior presidential adviser.
The 54-year-old Gibbons flew out of the country Monday evening, landing several hours later in Dubai. She was expected in London this morning.
Gibbons, who was arrested Nov. 25, was sentenced to 15 days in prison and deportation under Sudan’s Islamic Sharia law for having the teddy bear project for her class of 7-year-olds at the private Unity High School. She could have been punished with up to 40 lashes, six months in prison and a fine.
Lord Nazir Ahmed, part of the British delegation that met with al-Bashir, said the case was an “unfortunate misunderstanding” and stressed that Britain respected Islam. He added that he hoped “the relations between our two countries will not be damaged by this incident.”