Sudan charged a British teacher on Wednesday with insulting Islam and inciting religious hatred by allowing young pupils to name a teddy bear Mohammed, offences that could see the mother of two flogged and jailed if convicted.
Britain swiftly announced that it was summoning the Sudanese ambassador in London for talks at the Foreign Office as the case threatened to escalate into a full-blown diplomatic row.
“The investigation has been completed and the Briton Gillian Gibbons was charged under Article 125 of the penal code,” Deputy Justice Minister Abdel Daim Zamrawi told Sudan’s official SUNA news agency.
“The punishment for this is jail, a fine and lashes. It is up to the judge to determine the sentence,” Mr. Zamrawi was quoted as saying.
Gillian Gibbons has been in custody for three days after being arrested in Khartoum because parents complained that in allowing pupils at an expensive English school to name the bear Mohammed she was insulting the Muslim Prophet.
The sentence for breaching Article 125 of the penal code — publicly insulting or degrading any religion, its rites, beliefs and sacred items or humiliating its believers — is up to six months in jail, 40 lashes and a fine.
In London, a Foreign Office spokesman confirmed Ms. Gibbons had been charged with “insulting religion and inciting religious hatred.”
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s office said Foreign Secretary David Miliband wanted to see the Sudanese ambassador “as a matter of urgency.”
The purpose of the meeting was “so we can get a clear explanation for the rationale behind the charges and a sense of what the next steps might be,” he said. “We will consider our response in the light of that.”
The private school teacher, who has been moved to the criminal investigation department in Khartoum, told British consular officials who visited her on Wednesday for a second time that she was being treated well.
“Our consulate went to visit her this morning. She said she was OK and treated well,” an embassy spokesman told Agence France-Presse, adding that British officials are in “close discussion with the Sudanese authorities.”
Mr. Zamrawi said Ms. Gibbons was being held in good conditions and added that her relatives could visit, despite a reported complaint from her ex-husband in a British tabloid that the family had not been allowed to go to Sudan.
“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,” Mr. Zamrawi told AFP.
When asked if the authorities feared that releasing Ms. Gibbons could expose her to angry mobs, he said: “We are taking all these things into account… We don’t want to expose her to any unsafe conditions.”
Ms. Gibbons, in her 50s, is being held at the criminal investigation department and has been provided with an interpreter when necessary, the embassy said.
Sudan’s education ministry will also conduct an inquiry into the Christian run Unity High School, where Ms. Gibbons taught since leaving England in July, to determine whether it was guilty of a cover-up, Mr. Zamrawi said.
Ms. Gibbons allowed boys and girls as young as six to name the bear Mohammed several months ago. Ms. Gibbons has said she never meant to cause offence.
The Sudanese embassy in London said the affair could still be resolved amicably — but underlined the cultural differences behind the decision to charge the teacher.
“We still say that it can be resolved in an amicable way through a fair hearing and fair investigation and fair legal system,” embassy spokesman Khalid al-Mubarak told the BBC.
“But a teddy bear in your culture is different from a teddy bear in our culture,” he added.
“In our culture a teddy bear is a wild and dangerous animal. It’s not something to be cuddled by children before they sleep.”
A leading British Muslim took issue with that interpretation however saying that “appalled” at the decision to charge Ms. Gibbons over what had clearly been an innocent mistake.
“This is a disgraceful decision and defies common sense,” said the head of The Muslim Council of Britain, Muhammad Abdul Bari.
“There was clearly no intention on the part of the teacher to deliberately insult the Islamic faith.”
…this post forwarded by Windsor Humanist, Alexander Hodgins, after a November 29, 2007 article by Mohamed Hasni via AFP (Agence France-Presse)