Teddy bear teacher escapes the lash but gets 15 days' jail and deported

THE British teacher who allowed her pupils in a Sudan school to name a teddy bear Muhammad was last night jailed for inciting religious hatred, but escaped a possible sentence of 40 lashes.

Gillian Gibbons, 54, a mother of two from Liverpool, was given 15 days in jail and ordered to be deported by the court in Khartoum.

The Foreign Office said it was extremely disappointed by the verdict. Her lawyer says she will now appeal.

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Ms Gibbons was arrested on Sunday after complaints to the education ministry that she had insulted the Prophet Muhammad, the most revered figure in Islam, by applying his name to a soft toy.

Earlier, Ms Gibbons had arrived at Khartoum North Criminal Court looking pale and exhausted to find a scene of pandemonium.

Reporters, court officials and members of the public jostled for a view of the woman accused of insulting Islam's holiest prophet.

Judge Mohammed Youssef listened to two accounts - one from school secretary Sarah Khawad, who filed the first complaint about the teddy bear's name, and one from the official who has been investigating the case.

Colleagues maintained all along Ms Gibbons had meant no offence. They said her class of six and seven-year-olds had voted on the name - shared by one of their most popular members.

Isam Abu Hasabu, the chairman of the Unity High School's parent-teacher association, said: "The whole thing boiled down to a cultural misunderstanding. In our culture we don't know the bear as a cuddly symbol of mercy."

In a bizarre twist, onlookers were given a taste of justice meted out Sudanese style. Police dragged a man from the courtroom where he had just been sentenced to death for murder - and dealt him 20 lashes with a heavy, rubber tube for good measure.

The press was banned from the courtroom, and three film crews were detained for filming street scenes. Security was tight outside the building.

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Three pick-up trucks crammed with riot police - armed with sticks and AK-47 rifles - stood in the street outside, while plainclothed security officers patrolled the halls.

Sudanese ministers have tried to play down the case, fearing a public backlash that might make a speedy resolution impossible and further diplomatic isolation inevitable.

Osama Saeed, a Scottish spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain, said: "The incident was blown completely out of proportion. Ms Gibbons didn't commit a crime at all.

"There are far bigger crimes the Sudanese authorities could be dealing with - most notably the atrocities carried out by war criminals in Darfur."

Mohammad Sarwar, the Glasgow Central Labour MP, who has acted as an intermediary in a number of high-profile cases involving cultural clashes, said: "When I heard the news I gave a sigh of relief. Some of us were expecting the worst but were praying for the best.

"I don't believe Ms Gibbons meant any malice by her actions, but cultural differences can cause deep misunderstandings between communities."

Last night David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, "expressed in the strongest terms" his concern over the sentence after he summoned Omer Siddig, the Sudanese ambassador, to explain the decision. The Foreign Office said there would be more talks overnight and today to try to gain a "swift resolution".

• OMDURMAN women's prison, where Gillian Gibbons is expected to serve her sentence, is an overcrowded jail, usually filled with women convicted of making and selling alcohol, illegal in mainly Muslim Sudan.

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The prison, near Khartoum, was built to house 200 but has between 800 to 1,200 inmates at any time. Up to 20 women and their children share a single cell at any time.

Arafaa Sheikh Musa, the secretary-general of Al Manar Volunteer Organisation - an NGO that assists and educates women in prison - said: "On an average day there are about 800 to 1,000 women in prison.

"Every week, 40 will be released and the police will arrest about 50 more. Sometimes it is the same women being arrested"

Volunteer doctors visit the prison four times a week but the prison relies on donations for medicines for the inmates.

In January 2004, a study found 70 per cent of the inmates were serving short-term sentences of 15 days to six months and 30 per cent were being held for one to 20 years.