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Associated Press – December 3, 2007
KHARTOUM, Sudan – A British teacher jailed for insulting Islam after allowing her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad flew home Monday following a pardon by the president of Sudan, a British Embassy spokesman said.
Gillian Gibbons was believed to be on an Emirates flight with a stopover in Dubai before heading to London.
Embassy spokesman Omar Daair told The Associated Press that Gibbons has left Sudan.
Gibbons’ conviction under Sudan’s Islamic Sharia law shocked Britons and many Muslims worldwide. It also inflamed passions among many Sudanese, some of whom called for her execution.
She escaped harsh0er punishment that could have included up to 40 lashes, six months in prison and a fine.
In a written statement given to President Omar al-Bashir and read by a British mediator, Gibbons said she did not intend to offend anyone and had great respect for Islam.
Gibbons, 54, was sentenced Thursday to 15 days in prison and deportation for insulting Islam because she allowed her students to name a class teddy bear Muhammad, seen as a reference to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Her time in jail since her arrest Nov. 25 counted toward the sentence.
Al-Bashir pardoned Gibbons after two British Muslim politicians from the House of Lords met with him to plead for her release.
Lord Nazir Ahmed, who met with al-Bashir along with Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, said the case was an “unfortunate misunderstanding” and stressed that Britain respected Islam.
In the statement, released by the presidential palace and read by Warsi to reporters Monday, Gibbons said she was sorry if she caused any “distress.”
“I have a great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone,” Gibbons said in the statement. “I am looking forward to seeing my family and friends, but I am very sorry that I will be unable to return to Sudan.”
Ghazi Saladdin, a senior presidential adviser, said al-Bashir insisted that Gibbons had a “fair trial,” but he agreed to pardon her because of the efforts by the British Muslim delegation.
During her trial, the weeping teacher said she had intended no harm.
The naming of the teddy bear was part of a class project for her 7-year-old students at the private Unity High School. She asked the students to pick names for it and they proposed Abdullah, Hassan and Muhammad, and in September, the pupils voted to name it Muhammad, he said.
Each child was allowed to take the bear home on weekends and write a diary about what they did with it. The diary entries were collected in a book with the bear’s picture on the cover, labeled, “My Name is Muhammad,” he said. The bear itself was never labeled with the name, he added.
Another staff member at the school complained about the bear’s name, leading to Gibbons’ arrest.
The private English-language school with elementary to high school levels was founded by Christian groups, but 90 percent of its students are Muslim, mostly from upper-class Sudanese families.
Muhammad is one of the most common names for men in the Arab world. Muslim scholars generally agree that intent is a key factor in determining if someone has violated Islamic rules against insulting the prophet.
The conviction shocked many Britons, but the case was caught up in the ideology that al-Bashir’s Islamic regime has long instilled in Sudan, a mix of anti-colonialism, religious fundamentalism and a sense that the West is besieging Islam.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was delighted by news.
“Common sense has prevailed,” Brown said in a statement released by his office.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband praised Gibbons’ steadfastness and good cheer through a difficult process.
“I did say to her that it must have been very tough over the last week and she did say, ‘Well, it was prison but it wasn’t too bad a prison,’ or words to that effect,” he said. “She’s shown very good British grit.”
Archbishop of York John Sentamu, the second-ranking leader of the Church of England, said Gibbons had been a victim of “misunderstanding and muddled thinking.”
The case also sparked criticism from many Muslims in the West who said she should have never been arrested. On Monday, Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, welcomed the pardon.
“It will be wonderful to see her back in the U.K. I am sure she will be welcomed by both Muslims and non-Muslims after her quite terrible ordeal at the hands of the Sudanese authorities,” Bunglawala said.
There were concerns for Gibbons’ safety in Sudan after thousands of Sudanese, many armed with clubs and swords and beating drums, burned pictures of her and demanded her execution during a rally in Khartoum on Friday. She was moved from the Omdurman women’s prison to a secret location after the demonstrations against her, her lawyer said.
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.
Sudan’s ambassador in London, Khalid al-Mubarak, insisted Monday that the demonstrations “were an argument from the fringe.”
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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