Hundreds of Sudanese demonstrators brandishing swords and sticks demanded the execution of the British teacher Gillian Gibbons yesterday as diplomats sought her early release from the prison where she is serving a 15-day sentence for allowing a teddy bear to be named Mohamed.
The protesters gathered in the centre of the capital, Khartoum, after streaming from mosques at the end of Friday prayers to demand a tougher punishment be imposed on Ms Gibbons, who was convicted on Thursday of "insulting the faith of Muslims". She was arrested after a secretary at the private school where she was teaching reported her to the authorities for alleged blasphemy by letting her pupils give the 50cm-tall soft toy the same name as Islam's holiest prophet.
Ms Gibbons, 54, from Liverpool, was last night moved from the women's prison where she was being held to a secret detention centre. Her lawyer, Kamal al-Gizouli, said: "They want by hook or by crook to complete these nine days without any difficulties which would have an impact on their foreign relationships."
The Foreign Office said Ms Gibbons had told consular staff she was "fine" when they visited her earlier in the day. Intense efforts were continuing in London and Khartoum to persuade the Sudanese authorities to cut short Ms Gibbons' sentence this weekend and allow her to leave the country immediately. A spokeswoman said: "We are continuing to work towards a swift resolution to the situation and are pursuing diplomatic contact with the Sudanese government."
But there was little sign that British expressions of discontent, led by the Foreign Secretary David Miliband, would secure Ms Gibbons' rapid release. The Sudanese bureaucracy closes on Fridays and the street protests will strengthen the government's need to placate Islamist hardliners while trying to minimise growing damage to its international reputation.
About 600 protesters gathered outside the presidential palace waving green flags. Some carried swords, clubs, knives and axes; some chanted "Shame, shame on the UK" and "No tolerance: execution".
The group started walking towards the Unity High School, the fee-paying college where Ms Gibbons started teaching in August, and then headed towards the British embassy before being stopped by riot police.
Abdul-Jalil Nazeer al-Karouri, a prominent hardline cleric based at the Martyrs Mosque near where the demonstration took place, said: "Imprisoning this lady does not satisfy the thirst of Muslims in Sudan. But we welcome imprisonment and expulsion. This is an arrogant woman who came to our country, cashing her salary in dollars, teaching our children hatred of our Prophet Mohamed."
The Sudanese government has denied it is using Ms Gibbons as a political pawn in its fraught relationship with the West over the Darfur region but President Omar al-Bashir often seeks to underline his religious credentials by playing up to hardliners.
Ms Gibbons, wh went to Sudan to fulfil an ambition to teach abroad, has served five days of her sentence and will be deported once she finishes her prison term.
The sentence brought condemnation from all sides in Britain. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said the jail term was an "absurdly disproportionate response" to a "minor cultural faux pas". The Federation of Student Islamic Societies, which represents 89,000 Muslim students, said it was "deeply concerned" at a "gravely disproportionate" verdict.
Defence lawyers for Ms Gibbons suggested that an administrative worker, Sara Khawad, reported Ms Gibbons because of a grudge against the management of the school.
The case began after Ms Gibbons began a project in September on the behaviour of animals and asked one of her pupils to bring in a teddy bear. When she asked the class to name the toy, her own suggestion was rejected in favour of the name of a popular pupil, Mohamed.
Lawyers said Ms Gibbons was in tears as the verdict was read out on Thursday convicting her of the least serious of the three charges against her. A guilty verdict on the more severe allegations could have been punished with six months' imprisonment or 40 lashes.Reuse content