Muslim peers' visit raises hopes jailed teacher may be freed

British woman punished in Sudan over naming of teddy bear thanks supporters and says she is 'fine and well'
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The Independent Online

Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher jailed in Sudan for naming a teddy bear Mohamed, has declared she is "fine and well", amid hopes for an early release.

In a statement released by her legal team yesterday, the teacher said: "I'm very grateful to all the people working on my behalf. I know so many people out there have done so much. I know the Prime Minister has called my son, and I'm really grateful to everyone."

The statement, handed to Channel 4 News, stated: "I've been given so many apples I feel I could set up my own stall. The guards are constantly asking me if I have everything I need."

The teacher's "good spirits" were confirmed by two British Muslim peers who met her yesterday. Lord Ahmed, a Labour peer, and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative, met Sudanese officials and saw Ms Gibbons, 54, in custody for more than an hour. "Gillian was surprisingly in good spirits considering the last seven days," Lady Warsi said afterwards.

The teacher, who was moved to a secret location after demonstrators called on Friday for her to be killed, also spoke to her son John by telephone. "I'm not going over there because we're hoping it will be resolved sooner rather than later," Mr Gibbons said outside his home in Liverpool.

Ms Gibbons was sentenced on Thursday to 15 days for "insulting Islam" after her class of seven-year-olds voted to give the bear the same name as the Prophet. But the judge acquitted her of the graver charge of "inciting hatred", which might have exposed her to 40 lashes or a six-month jail term, raising hopes that the authorities wish to reduce international fallout from the affair.

Lord Ahmed said the two peers expected to meet Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, during their visit, adding: "There are lots of positive signs. But the Sudanese government is under extreme pressure from those who demonstrated in the streets, and those religious people who delivered strong sermons ... where they said they should rescind the 15 days and take her back to court. We are optimistic that there will be a positive outcome." The teacher's lawyer, Kamal al-Jazouli, speculated that she might be pardoned.

British diplomats seeking to help Ms Gibbons faced a difficult task. Relations between Britain and its former colony have suffered over the British role in the "war on terror" and pressure on Khartoum to end the slaughter in Darfur, where 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced. Britain has shied away from investing in Sudan, whereas China buys two-thirds of Sudanese oil and the Gulf states, India and Malaysia are investing billions.

The oil bonanza, however, has been a mixed blessing for President Bashir. He came to power in a 1989 coup with the support of Islamists such as Hassan al-Turabi, who was close to Osama bin Laden during his years in Sudan. But the President later fell out with Mr Turabi and the Muslim Brotherhood, who claim Sudan is becoming "too Westernised".

Brushing aside complaints by British Muslims that Sudan's reaction to the affair was "abominable" and "gravely disproportionate", hardliners stirred up protests like the one that took place on Friday. After this Ms Gibbons was moved from a women's prison to a location where Mr Jazouli said she was well-guarded and kept separate from other prisoners.

The teacher's 15-day sentence was seen as an attempt by the government to appease both domestic zealots and foreign critics. The Assembly of Ulemas, said to have the ear of the Bashir regime, claimed the teacher's actions were part of a Western plot, but the case has failed to ignite in the wider Muslim world.