Two Muslim members of Britain’s House of Lords traveled to Sudan on Monday to meet with President Omar al-Bashir and appeal for the release of schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons, news agencies reported.
Gibbons, 54, was sentenced to 15 days in jail and deportation on Thursday for insulting Islam because she let her seven-year-old students name a teddy bear Muhammad for a class project. Muhammad is the name of Islam’s most important prophet, as well as a popular boy’s name. Gibbons had taught English at a private school in Sudan for four months.
In Sudan, the naming offense — considered an insult to the revered prophet — could result in punishment of up to 40 lashes, six months in prison and a fine, according to the AP. Thursday’s sentencing decision was followed by angry protests in Sudan Friday over what was considered a lenient sentence.
Before she departed for Britain Monday, Gibbons apologized to the Sudanese people. “I have great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone and I am sorry if I caused any distress,” she said in a 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 and work in Unity High School as the teacher of 2X.”
British authorities lauded Bashir’s decision to release Gibbons. “To imprison Gillian Gibbons was completely unacceptable and there’s been outrage around the world and I’m grateful to the two members of the House of Lords,” Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, according to the BBC.
Sudan’s ambassador to Britain, Khalid al-Mubarak, said that he was “overjoyed” at the news, the AP reported. “What has happened was a cultural misunderstanding, a minor one, and I hope she, her family and the British people won’t be affected by what has happened,” Mubarak said.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband praised Gibbons.
“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.”
Relations between Sudan and the West have been strained in recent years over the Sudanese government’s handling of the civil war and humanitarian crisis in the country’s Western region of Darfur. Gibbons’ release is being viewed by some as an attempt to appease Western nations.
“This was all political,” Kamal al-Gizouli, defense attorney for Gibbons, told the New York Times. “The government did this to show they are tolerant. They don’t need any more problems with the world and the international media.”