Teddy Bear Creates Diplomatic Rift British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons appeared in court Thursday in Sudan, where she has been charged with insulting Islam. Fellow teachers say Gibbons made an innocent mistake when she let her students name a teddy bear Muhammad.
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Teddy Bear Creates Diplomatic Rift

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Teddy Bear Creates Diplomatic Rift

Teddy Bear Creates Diplomatic Rift

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A British teacher has been found guilty of insulting Islam in Sudan after letting her students name a teddy bear Muhammad. Gillian Gibbons has been sentenced to 15 days in prison, followed by deportation.

This story is being covered Opheera McDoom. She's a Reuters journalist in Khartoum. Welcome back to the program.

Ms. OPHEERA McDOOM (Reuters): Hi.

BRAND: So this was a surprise, wasn't it?

Ms. McDOOM: It was rather a surprise. I think the defense had been quite optimistic previous to this because they had stopped, their defense had rested after just two witnesses (unintelligible) five witnesses. They had been very optimistic because they felt that they had really made their case and their defense witnesses had pleaded Gillian's case, that she was not aware of what had happened, that it was insulting Islam or religion in general. And so they had rested after just two witnesses. So I think everyone was quite surprised that she was actually found guilty in the end.

BRAND: And what were the reasons given for the guilty verdict?

Ms. McDOOM: We're not aware of what exactly the reasons were. The judge has declined to elaborate on the actual reasons. But what we have heard from the head of the school, Robert Boulos, is that he thinks it's actually a fair verdict given all the political pressures that have been on the case in the last few days, all the focus in the international world about it, and that given those pressures, this was actually a fair verdict. Although he said he will be very sad to lose such a good teacher at his school.

BRAND: How long has she been teaching at that school?

Ms. McDOOM: Gillian has been teaching since August. So only a few months has she been teaching at Unity High School in Khartoum.

BRAND: Okay. Can you give us a little background on this case and what happened and how it became such an international incident?

Ms. McDOOM: Well, Gillian was arrested from her home on Sunday evening, and on Monday the news broke that she had been arrested for insulting religion. I think with the whole idea of a teddy bear being named Muhammad and her arrest, given the background of all the religious tension in the world over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and also given the protest that we saw here in 2005 when a newspaper editor had reprinted articles questioning the roots of the Prophet Muhammad, that there's a background of religious tension in Sudan and also in the region as a whole. And I think this is what has attracted so much attention to this.

The case actually started a few months ago in September. This is when the teddy bear was first introduced to the school and the idea was that the children would take it home, write a diary as a writing exercise, and then bring back their diary with the teddy bear and pass it along to the next child. This exercise actually went on for two months until, until any complaint was heard. And actually today we found out for the first time the complaint was from a member of staff and not from parents of the children, as had earlier been described by the police.

BRAND: And also there had been some discussion that this teddy bear was actually named by one of the students, not by Gillian Gibbons.

Ms. McDOOM: Yes. Well, I interviewed a seven-year-old child called Muhammad. He said that he had been asked by the teacher to choose a name for the teddy bear. Now, he had decided on Muhammad because that was his own name. He said he didn't have any idea of the Prophet Muhammad in his head when he called this teddy bear Muhammad, and to the kids he was quite a popular child and many of the children in the class liked the name Muhammad. Twenty of the 23 children had voted to agree with him on the name of Muhammad for the teddy bear. So it wasn't actually Gillian Gibbons who had named the teddy bear.

BRAND: Gillian Gibbons had faced 40 lashes as well. So is this kind of a compromise sentence?

Ms. McDOOM: I think it could have been a lot worst. I mean the sentencing could have been up to one year in jail, 40 lashes, or a fine. And actually the judge could have sentenced her to all three had he chosen to. So I think given that, that's why we see the reaction of the head of the school, that this is actually a fair verdict, given what could have been, she could have been convicted of.

BRAND: Opheera McDoom, Reuters journalist in Khartoum, Sudan. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. McDOOM: Thank you very much.

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