Hopes rise for early release of British teacher

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The Independent Online

Hopes for the early release of the British teacher jailed in Sudan for letting her pupils name a teddy bear Mohamed were raised yesterday when two peers lobbying for her freedom were granted a meeting with the country's President.

Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in an Islamist-backed coup and is the only person with the power to grant a pardon to Gillian Gibbons, will discuss lifting the 15-day sentence at a meeting with Baroness Warsi, a Conservative shadow minister, and Labour's Lord Ahmed this morning.

The Muslim peers had spent two gruelling days in talks in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, as part of an unofficial initiative to try to secure Mrs Gibbons' freedom, and had been due to return to London today after seemingly failing to persuade Mr al-Bashir to hear their case.

But in a last-minute breakthrough shortly after they announced they were extending their visit by 24 hours, a senior aide to the President said the meeting would take place at 10.30am GMT. Mahzoub Faidul told the Associated Press: "The President will meet the British delegation. He will discuss the case and a possible pardon."

The meeting, which follows behind-the-scenes negotiations by Foreign Office diplomats in tandem with shuttle diplomacy around Khartoum by the peers, makes the early release of Mrs Gibbons likely. But further intransigence by the unpredictable Mr al-Bashir cannot be ruled out.

Kamal al-Gizouli, the lawyer representing Mrs Gibbons, said before the announcement that he was optimistic his client would be set free because of the damage being done abroad to Sudan's reputation. "They want to get rid of the problem and the visit of the British lords would be a good opportunity. This case is a headache for the government, I would not be surprised if Gibbons was released today or tomorrow."

Since coming to power in 1989, Mr al-Bashir has installed a hardline regime in Sudan, promoting a mixture of religious fundamentalism and a strong sense that the West is besieging Islam. But he has recently adopted a more conciliatory stance as billions of dollars pours into the country from foreign investors looking to secure a share of Sudan's large oil reserves.

He is currently locked in a renewed dispute with the UN, which has accused Sudan of delaying the deployment of peacekeepers in Darfur.

Baroness Warsi said the decision to postpone her return to London with Lord Ahmed today had been taken because of signs from the Sudanese authorities that further progress was possible. "There's a huge amount of goodwill here," she said. "We want to keep building on that and keep searching for a resolution."

The peer said Mrs Gibbons, 54, had told her that she was "fine" when she and Lord Ahmed visited the prisoner in the government building to which she was moved on Friday evening after demonstrations by sword-waving protesters who called for her execution by firing squad. She was also visited by the British ambassador.

Mrs Gibbons, from Aigburth, Liverpool, was arrested eight days ago after a secretary at the private school where she worked reported to the authorities that a teddy bear being used for a class project had been named Mohamed. She was subsequently convicted of insulting Islam and its holiest prophet despite her testimony that she had intended no harm.

She is being kept in a private room with access to a toilet and washing facilities, in stark contrast to the notoriously poor conditions in the Omdurman women's prison close to Khartoum where she was initially ordered to serve her sentence.