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British Teacher Appears in Sudan Court

Riot police surrounded a Sudanese court as proceedings began on Thursday against a British teacher charged with inciting religious hatred over letting her pupils name a teddy bear Muhammad.

world Updated: Nov 29, 2007 20:18 IST

Riot police surrounded a Sudanese court as proceedings began on Thursday against a British teacher charged with inciting religious hatred over letting her pupils name a teddy bear Muhammad.

If convicted, Gillian Gibbons faces up to 40 lashes, six months in jail and a fine, Sudanese officials have said, with the verdict and any sentence up to the judge's discretion.

Gibbons, in a dark blue jacket and blue dress, was not handcuffed when she walked into the courtroom in Khartoum, according to reporters who were briefly allowed inside but were subsequently dismissed.

The case set up an escalating diplomatic dispute with Britain, Sudan's former colonial ruler.

Prosecutor-General Salah Eddin Abu Zaid told The Associated Press the British teacher could expect a "swift and fair trial."

Although hearings in Sudan are usually public, the police cordon barred British diplomats and others from entering. "It's up to the judge, but from a consular point of view, we would like to be present," said British Consul Russell Philipps.

Gibbons' chief defense lawyer, Kamal Djizouri, scuffled with a tight police cordon before he was allowed in.

Djizouri said he would argue her case based on Islamic Sharia law and show there was "absolutely no intention to insult religion, and for blasphemy to take place there must be an insult."

Gibbons was teaching her pupils, who are around age 7, about animals, and asked one of them to bring in her teddy bear, according to Robert Boulos, a spokesman for Unity High School in Khartoum.

Gibbons asked the students to pick names for it and they proposed Abdullah, Hassan and Muhammad, and in September, the pupils voted to name it Muhammad, he said.

Each child was allowed to take the bear home on weekends and write a diary about what they did with it. The diary entries were collected in a book with the bear's picture on the cover, labeled, "My Name is Muhammad," he said. The bear itself was never labeled with the name, he added.

Muhammad is a common name among Muslim men, but giving the prophet's name to an animal would be seen as insulting by many Muslims.

Episcopalian Bishop Ezekiel Kondo, Gibbons' employer said he was at the court "as a witness to testify that she never intended to insult any religion," but he was also barred from entering.

The charges against Gibbons, who was arrested in her home in Khartoum on Sunday after some parents complained, have angered the British government, which urgently summoned the Sudanese ambassador to discuss the case. British and American Muslim groups also criticized the decision.

In London, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said British diplomats "will do everything to avoid" any of the possible sentences that could be imposed on the teacher.

"There is an innocent misunderstanding at the heart of this, not a criminal offense," Miliband said.

Officials said Miliband would meet with Sudan's ambassador later Thursday to discuss the case.

A spokesman at the Sudanese Embassy in London said he did not think Gibbons would be convicted.

"Mrs. Gibbons has consular support, the British Embassy has one of the best solicitors in the country, whom I know personally," said Khalid al Mubarak.

Officials in Sudan's Foreign Ministry have tried to play down the case, calling it an isolated incident and initially predicting Gibbons could be released without charge.

But hard-liners have considerable weight in the government of President Omar al-Bashir, which came to power in a 1989 military coup saying it wanted to create an Islamic state.

The country's top Muslim clerics have pressed the government to ensure that she is punished, comparing her action to author Salman Rushdie's "blasphemies" against the Prophet Muhammad.

The British novelist was accused of blasphemy by many Muslims for his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses," which had a character seen as a reference to the prophet. Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a religious edict calling for Rushdie's death.

The north of Sudan bases its legal code on Islamic Sharia law, and al-Bashir often seeks to burnish his religious credentials.

Last year, he vowed to lead a jihad, or holy war, against UN peacekeepers if they deployed in the Darfur region of western Sudan. He relented this year to allow a U.N.-African Union force there, but this month said he would bar Scandinavian peacekeepers from participating because newspapers in their countries ran caricatures of Prophet Muhammad last year.