Sudan: UPDATE: Teacher charged for 'inciting hatred' with a toy
Gibbons arrived in Sudan in August to take up a post at the exclusive Unity high school, which follows a British-style curriculum. In September, during a class on animals and their habitats, she asked her seven-year-old pupils to give a teddy bear a name. They chose Muhammad, the name of one of the boys in the class and a popular name in Sudan.
Last week the education ministry informed the school that a few Muslim parents had complained about the name, and police arrested Gibbons at her home in the school grounds.
Sudan's top clerics, known as the Assembly of the Ulemas, said in a statement on Wednesday that parents had handed them a book the teacher was assembling about the bear. "She, in a very abusive manner, used the name of Prophet Muhammad, may Allah shame her," the statement said.
Unity's directors have shut the school to avoid the type of protests that greeted the publication of the notorious cartoons in a Danish newspaper last year.
The Foreign Office confirmed Gibbons had been charged, prompting a statement from Gordon Brown's official spokesman. "We are surprised and disappointed by this development," he said. "The first step is to summon the Sudanese ambassador so we can get a clear explanation for the rationale behind these charges."
The foreign secretary, David Miliband, is expected to see the ambassador this morning. The Foreign Office minister Lord Malloch-Brown is understood to have been in close contact with Sudanese officials. Diplomats in Khartoum, who were denied access to Gibbons on Tuesday but were allowed to see her for 90 minutes yesterday, were shocked by the decision to press charges. They had hoped that a policy of quiet diplomacy would persuade the authorities to free the teacher.
Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he was appalled by the news. "This 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."
Ghazi Suleiman, a human rights lawyer and Sudanese MP, said: "This should not be politicised. People must stay calm. There was a complaint made against her by certain parents. There is now a case to answer. In my opinion as a lawyer, the lady is innocent. I am sure that if she is seen by a competent court, she will be acquitted."
Some analysts saw ulterior motives. There are tensions between Britain and Sudan over the conflict in Darfur. In a Guardian interview this month, President Omar al-Bashir expressed anger at the threat of UK sanctions against Sudan if peace talks failed.
Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, a prominent peace activist in Khartoum, said: "This was an opportunity for the government to distract people from the main issues in Sudan: the problems between the authorities in the north and south of the country, the conflict in Darfur and the question of letting in United Nations peacekeepers."
There were reports yesterday of pamphlets being circulated in Khartoum calling on people to protest against the teacher after Friday prayers. But many people seemed to take her side. Muhammad Kamal Aldeen Muhammad, a 20-year-old student, said it was clear that she had not intended to insult the prophet. "All she was doing was trying to help her students. The government is looking at this purely from an Islamic perspective."
By: Xan Rice and Andrew Heavens
29 November 2007