The British schoolteacher jailed in Sudan for allowing her 7-year-old pupils to name a class teddy bear Muhammad was pardoned Monday by the Sudanese president and left for England later in the evening.
President Omar al-Bashir made the decision after meeting with two Muslim members of Britain’s House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament.
The British prime minister, Gordon Brown, said he was “delighted and relieved” at the news and that “common sense has prevailed.”
The teacher, Gillian Gibbons, was sentenced to 15 days in jail last week for insulting Islam and was to be released next Monday. Under Sudanese law, Gibbons could have received 40 lashes and been jailed for six months. On Friday, hundreds of angry Sudanese in Khartoum, the capital, protested what they considered a lenient punishment and called for her to be put to death.
British officials had been ratcheting up pressure on Sudan’s government to release Gibbons, 54, saying she had made an innocent mistake. Muhammad is one of the most common names in the Muslim world, but it is also the name of Islam’s holy prophet.
Bashir was caught in the middle. By cutting short the time that Gibbons would serve in jail, the president risked provoking Muslim hard-liners in his country, who are among his key supporters. But the case hit his desk at a time when U.N. officials and Western governments were increasingly complaining that Sudan was obstructing an expanded peacekeeping force for Darfur, the war-torn region in the west of the country.
Apparently, Bashir calculated that he did not need to isolate his government any further.
“This was all political,” said Kamal al-Gizouli, Gibbons’ defense attorney. “The government did this to show they are tolerant. They don’t need any more problems with the world and the international media.”
Bashir said in a statement that Gibbons was released early because she was a guest of Sudan. A Sudanese official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the government had struggled with what to do.
What persuaded Bashir to pardon Gibbons were the concerns raised by the British Muslim officials that “this whole incident could fuel Islamophobia,” the Sudanese official said, “and President Bashir didn’t want that.”
Gibbons, who flew out of Khartoum around 9 p.m. on Monday en route back to England, responded with an apology.
“I have been in Sudan for only four months but I have enjoyed myself immensely,” she said in a statement. “I have encountered nothing but kindness and generosity from the Sudanese people. I have great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone.”
The teddy bear ordeal began in September when Gibbons, who taught at one of Khartoum’s most exclusive private schools, started a project on animals and asked her class to suggest a name for a teddy bear. The class voted resoundingly for Muhammad.