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Teacher back in Britain after being pardoned in Islam insult case

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

LIVERPOOL, England -- A British teacher returned to her northern English hometown Tuesday after being pardoned in Sudan for insulting Islam by allowing her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad.

Gillian Gibbons took refuge from the media in a hotel, issuing a plea for privacy -- and time to consider interview requests.

Police sealed off the street in front of her son's Liverpool home as more than 40 reporters waited outside. Neighbors poked their heads out of their homes to examine the crush of satellite trucks and camera crews.

"She's had a long journey home and is thinking about events and just wants to spend some time with her family," said Richard Clein, associate director of the Bell Pottinger North public relations firm. "I think the family are surprised at the amount of interest ... we've been asked here to tell you to leave."

After traveling through the night from Sudan, Gibbons told reporters at London's Heathrow Airport that she was stunned by the swift turn of events and her eight days in jail.

"I'm just an ordinary middle-aged primary school teacher. I went out there to have an adventure and got a bit more than I bargained for," she said. "I don't think anyone could have imagined it would snowball like this."

At her son's home, British Muslims delivered a message of support and brought a bouquet with the message: "Welcome back, Gillian."

'Something ridiculous'

"It was outrageous, she shouldn't have been treated that way," said Dr. Abdul Hamid. "She's been the victim of something ridiculous. We're glad she's back home and her ordeal is all over."

Gibbons' supporters have said the case started when a school secretary with a grudge, Sarah Khawad, complained to the Ministry of Education that Gibbons had insulted Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Gibbons' lawyer, Kamal al-Gizouli, and school officials said Khawad was acting out of revenge after she had an argument with the school's principal, though they could not say the cause of the argument.

No parents ever complained, school director Robert Boulos said.

However, the case escalated as Muslim clerics in Sudan sought to drum up public outrage, calling the naming of the teddy bear part of a Western plot to insult the prophet and demanding Gibbons be punished.

Gibbons, 54, was freed Monday after two Muslim members of Britain's House of Lords met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The teacher sent the president a statement saying she did not mean any offense.

"I'm very glad to be back, and I'm a little shocked about all the media attention that I've been getting. I'm looking forward to seeing my family and friends and to have a good rest, and I'm hoping that you'll give me space in order to do that," she said at Heathrow.

"It has been an ordeal, but I'd like want you to know that I was well-treated in prison and everybody was very kind to me."

Al-Bashir insisted Gibbons had a fair trial, in which she was convicted of insulting Islam's prophet and sentenced to 15 days in prison, but the president agreed to pardon her during the meeting with the British delegation, said Ghazi Saladdin, a senior presidential adviser.

Gibbons was cautious about answering questions.

When asked her feelings about the offense she was accused of, she said: "I don't think I really know enough about it to comment really. It's a very difficult area and a very delicate area."

She added, "I was very upset to think that I might have caused offense to people."

Asked if she was terrified of prison, Gibbons said, "That's an understatement."

"I was in two different prisons," she added. I never actually went to the main women's prison, thankfully. The first one I was at was just like a downtown prison -- like a lockup. I was treated the same as any other Sudanese prisoner in that you were given the bare minimum.

"Then I was moved to another prison and there the Ministry of the Interior sent me a bed, which is possibly the best present I've ever had."

The trauma has not deterred Gibbons from teaching.

"I'm looking for a job, because I'm jobless, she said. "So my immediate plan is to spend Christmas with my family, and then very seriously look for employment."

Children and staff at Liverpool's Garston Church of England Primary School, where she taught for 12 years until 2000, had been praying for her safe return.

"It's been a bizarre and busy week," head teacher Rick Widdowson told The Associated Press. "Gill's safety has been paramount and now she's back home it's the first day of getting her life back on an even keel."


Associated Press reporter Robert Barr in London contributed to this report.


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