Sudan: British teacher pardoned by Sudan government
Mr Miliband thanked the two British Muslim peers whose meetings were “an important contribution to this case, and has shown that UK opinion spans all religions in wanting a common sense solution to this case”. He added that he had spoken to Ms Gibbons, who was delighted to be returning home. "I am very pleased to report that she is in remarkably good spirits. She said to me that she was a little overwhelmed by the amount of coverage that there has been, but she was elated to be on her way back home," he said.
"She has shown very good British grit in very difficult circumstances, but I know that the most important thing for her is to get home as soon as possible and to return to her family."
Baroness Warsi also revealed that hardliners had been pushing for Mrs Gibbons to face a retrial and probable tougher sentence. "Initially the meetings were hopeful but we felt very quickly the mood changed and a more hard-lined mood developing," she said. "People were calling for a retrial which was a very real possibility."
Gordon Brown welcomed the news, saying he was delighted and relieved that Mrs Gibbon's difficult ordeal was over. The Prime Minister said in a statement: "Commonsense has prevailed.
"Through the course of Ms Gibbons’s detention I was glad to see Muslim groups across the UK express strong support for her case. I applaud the particular efforts of Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi in securing her freedom. I am also grateful to our officials for all their work behind the scenes."
Mrs Gibbons, of Aigburth, Liverpool, was sentenced to 15 days in jail and to be deported for allowing her class of seven-year-olds to call a class teddy bear Mohamed.
There are few direct flights between Britain and Sudan, but it is expected that Ms Gibbons could be on a flight to the UK within a few hours once her travel documents have been updated and an exit visa issued. Both the British and Sudanese authorities are said to be keen for her to leave as quickly as possible. The British teacher had been serving her sentence at a secret government villa in the Sudanese capital.
Former teaching colleagues in Liverpool said that they were thrilled by her release. Rick Widdowson, headteacher of Garston Primary School, where she spent 12 years, said: "Everyone is very relieved and very pleased. We feel it should never have come to this but it’s a good ending. One or two of the staff see Gill socially and I am sure they will be meeting up to celebrate with her."
Mrs Gibbons was arrested last Sunday after a secretary at Unity High School complained that she had named a teddy bear after Muhammad, Islam’s holiest prophet. Her lawyer maintains that the the bear was named Mohamed after a popular seven-year-old pupil, after a class vote. Teachers said that parents had known about the name since September without anyone taking offence. They insist that it was an innocent mistake being exploited as part of a dispute between the secretary and the school’s director.
Ms Gibbons was convicted of insulting Islam at the end of an eight-hour hearing on Thursday and sentenced to 15 days in detention. She had faced 40 lashes or up to a year in prison.
Rather than the overcrowded conditions of Omdurman Women’s Prison, where her defence lawyers expected her to be sent, Ms Gibbons was held at one of the dozens of anonymous whitewashed bungalows surrounded by high walls in Khartoum’s dusty suburbs.
They were once used as "ghost houses", the sort of places where opponents would disappear, but now they are usually reserved for high-ranking opposition leaders under arrest.
She had a bed, which is not normally provided in Sudan’s cockroach-ridden jails, and as much food as she wanted, in stark contrast to the rest of the prison system where relatives must bring in food and water every day.
Hundreds of Muslims took to the streets of Khartoum the day after she was sentenced, some of them calling for Ms Gibbons’ death.
The influential Council of Islamic Scholars in Sudan warned the Government not to free Ms Gibbons early, saying that the sentence was already too light and to free her now would "wound the sensibilities of Muslims".
"If the Government retracts this judgment . . . this would be a very bad precedent and it would have very bad consequences on the reputation of the state . . . not only in Sudan but also outside Sudan," said al-Sheikh Mohammad Abdel Karim, a spokesman for the council. "This is not a matter to be settled politically. This is a matter which goes to the very core of Muslims and their sensibilities."
Sudan enjoys difficult relations with Britain, the former colonial power. Analysts had warned that President al-Bashir faced opposition within his own Government - from the powerful Ministry of Interior and state security apparatus - if he was seen to be bending to Western pressure.
Elteyb Hag Ateya, a director of Khartoum University’s peace research institute, said that the Government was keen to limit damage from the affair. "Whenever I speak to anyone in government they say it is a nightmare and they do not want to hear about it again. They do not want any aftermath like the lady going home and holding a press conference complaining about conditions."
By: Rob Crilly
3 December 2007
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