Sudan charges Briton with inciting hatred over 'Mohamed' teddy bear

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The Independent Online

A British teacher jailed in Sudan for letting her class of seven-year-olds name a teddy bear Mohamed, has been charged with insulting religion and inciting hatred.

Gillian Gibbons, 54, was also charged with showing contempt for religious beliefs and could face up to 40 lashes and six months imprisonment under Sudan's sharia law.

The Foreign Office confirmed yesterday that Ms Gibbons, from Liverpool, was charged under Article 125 of the criminal code following an investigation by the Khartoum North prosecution unit.

Ms Gibbons is expected to appear in court later today. Yesterday afternoon she was visited for around 90 minutes by three officials from the British embassy in Khartoum and a teaching colleague from Unity High School, where she worked. Russell Phillips, British consul in Khartoum, said: "I can confirm that we have met Ms Gibbons and she said she is being treated well."

Ms Gibbons had asked her class to pick a name for their new mascot, a small teddy bear that was dressed in old clothes and was taken home each weekend by a different pupil, who was asked to keep a diary of its activities.

Ms Gibbons suggested the name "Faris", which is Arabic for "horseman". In spite of her recommendation, 20 out of the total 23 class members voted in favour of calling the mascot Mohamed the name of one of the most popular boys in the class.

Islamic law forbids images of the Prophet Mohamed, lest they facilitate idolatry.

Lord Malloch-Brown, the minister for Africa, telephoned the Sudanese ambassador to London, Omer Mohammed Ahmed Siddiq, on Tuesday. But when Ms Gibbons was charged yesterday afternoon Mr Siddiq was summoned to the Foreign Office by Foreign Secretary David Miliband "as a matter of urgency".

The Sudanese embassy in London had earlier released a statement describing the affair as a "storm in a teacup", and suggesting that it was based on cultural misunderstandings.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said that he was "surprised and disappointed" to learn of the charges.

Ms Gibbons left her job as a primary school head-teacher in Liverpool in July, and took up the challenge of teaching in Sudan following the break-up of her 33-year marriage.

She began teaching at the fee-paying British Unity High School, which is run by Christians, in September. Her pupils were largely the children of Sudanese professionals, expatriates, and oil workers.

The Deputy Justice Minister, Abdel Zaim Zamrawi, said: "The punishment for this is jail, a fine, and lashes. It is up to the judge to determine the sentence".

"She is in a room and she has all the necessary things. She has seen her lawyer and is brought food. She has basic rights. For us, she is innocent until her guilt has been proved. Her relatives can visit her," he added.

Sudan's Ministry of Education, whose receipt of complaints about the teddy bear prompted Ms Gibbons' arrest on Sunday, said that it would conduct an inquiry into Unity High School, to determine whether or not it was guilty of a cover-up.

An influential and semi-official association of clerics, scholars, and preachers known as the Sudanese Assembly of Ulemas, who are thought to have the ear of the Sudanese government, suggested the incident was part of a broader Western "plot" against Islam that is exemplified "in the writings of renegade Salman Rushdie and the blasphemous caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed."

"What has happened was not haphazard or carried out of ignorance, but rather a calculated action and another ring in the circles plotting against Islam," the Ulemas added. "It is part of the campaign of the so-called war against terrorism and the intense media campaign against Islam".