Mohamed Osman, AP, November 30, 2007
Thousands of Sudanese, many armed with clubs and knives, rallied Friday in a central square and demanded the execution of a British teacher convicted of insulting Islam for allowing her students to name a teddy bear “Muhammad.”
In response to the demonstration, teacher Gillian Gibbons was moved from the women’s prison near Khartoum to a secret location for her safety, her lawyer said.
In Britain, Gibbons’ son, John, told The Associated Press that her mother was “holding up well” and she made an appeal for tolerance.
“One of the things my mum said today was that ‘I don’t want any resentment towards Muslim people,’” John Gibbons said, relaying part of a telephone conversation with her.
The protesters streamed out of mosques after Friday sermons, as pickup trucks with loudspeakers blared messages against Gibbons, who was sentenced Thursday to 15 days in prison and deportation. She avoided the more serious punishment of 40 lashes.
They massed in central Martyrs Square outside the presidential palace, where hundreds of riot police were deployed. They did not try to stop the rally, which lasted about an hour.
“Shame, shame on the U.K.,” protesters chanted.
They called for Gibbons’ execution, saying, “No tolerance: Execution,” and “Kill her, kill her by firing squad.”
Several hundred protesters, not openly carrying weapons, marched from the square to Unity High School, about a mile away, where Gibbons worked. They chanted slogans outside the school, which is closed and under heavy security, then headed toward the nearby British Embassy. They were stopped by security forces two blocks away from the embassy.
Many protesters carried clubs, knives and axes—but not automatic weapons, which some have brandished at past government-condoned demonstrations. That suggested Friday’s rally was not organized by the government.
A Muslim cleric at Khartoum’s main Martyrs Mosque denounced Gibbons during one sermon, saying she intentionally insulted Islam. He did not call for protests, however.
“Imprisoning this lady does not satisfy the thirst of Muslims in Sudan. But we welcome imprisonment and expulsion,” the cleric, Abdul-Jalil Nazeer al-Karouri, a well-known hard-liner, told worshippers.
Britain, meanwhile, pursued diplomatic moves to free Gibbons. Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke with her family to convey his regret, his spokeswoman said.
The Foreign Office said consular staff had visited Gibbons in prison, and she was in good health.
Officials said Lord Ahmed, a Muslim Labour peer, would travel to Sudan to try to secure Gibbons’ release. The Foreign Office said the trip was a private initiative.
Most Britons expressed shock at the verdict by a court in Khartoum, alongside hope it would not raise tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain.
“One of the good things is the U.K. Muslims who’ve condemned the charge as completely out of proportion,” said Paul Wishart, 37, a student in London.
Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, accused the Sudanese authorities of “gross overreaction.”
The Muslim Public Affairs Committee, a political advocacy group, said the prosecution was “abominable and defies common sense.”
The Federation of Student Islamic Societies, which represents 90,000 Muslim students in Britain and Ireland, called on Sudan’s government to free Gibbons, saying she had not meant to cause offense.
The Ramadhan Foundation, a Muslim youth organization, said Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir should pardon the teacher.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, said Gibbons’ prosecution and conviction was “an absurdly disproportionate response to what is at worst a cultural faux pas.”
Foreign Secretary David Miliband summoned the Sudanese ambassador late Thursday to express Britain’s disappointment with the verdict. The Foreign Office said Britain would continue diplomatic efforts to achieve “a swift resolution” to the crisis.
The case put Sudan’s government in an embarrassing position—facing the anger of Britain on one side and potential trouble from powerful Islamic hard-liners on the other. Many saw the 15-day sentence as an attempt to appease both sides.
In The Times, columnist Bronwen Maddox said the verdict was “something of a fudge . . . designed to give a nod to British reproof but also to appease the street.”