British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons plans to get back to the classroom once she finishes celebrating her release from a Sudanese jail.
“I’ll be looking for a job,” she said Tuesday morning during a news conference after her arrival at London’s Heathrow Airport, where she was met by her overjoyed son and daughter, John and Jessica.
Gibbons, 54, a primary school teacher from the northern town of Liverpool, was sentenced to jail by a Sudanese court for insulting Islam, in an incident involving a teddy bear. She couldn’t stop smiling as she told reporters she was “very glad to be back and a little shocked at the media attention I have been getting.”
Her release came after tense negotiations between two members of Britain’s House of Lords and the Sudanese government.
“It has been an ordeal, but I would like you to know I was well-treated in prison and everybody was very kind to me,” she said. “I’m just an ordinary middle-aged teacher in search of adventure and I got a bit more of an adventure than I bargained for.”
Gibbons’ ordeal began when she asked her class at the Unity Primary School in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, which teaches a Western curriculum to mainly Muslim children, to name a teddy bear that would then be used as a sort of roving ambassador, sending messages to children in other countries.
Her class of 7-year-olds chose to name the bear Muhammad. Complaints of sacrilege for taking the name of Islam’s prophet in vain reached the government.
Such an offense is punishable by a prison sentence, a fine and 40 lashes, according to hard-line Muslim officials.
Despite receiving support from parents and children at the school, Gibbons was arrested Nov. 25 and charged with insulting Islam. She was sentenced to 15 days in prison.
The case prompted thousands of demonstrators to take to the streets of Khartoum with calls for a sterner sentence, even execution, and a public outcry in Britain denouncing the Sudanese reaction as absurd and overly strict.
Critics included the leader of the Muslim Council of Britain, Muhammad Abdul Bari, who called the sentence “a gross overreaction.”
He praised the efforts of the two British peers who negotiated her release. “There was clearly no intention on the part of the teacher to deliberately insult the Islamic faith. . . . We are glad this has finally been recognized,” he said.
Lord Nazir Ahmed, a Labor Party peer, and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative, met with Sudanese officials and President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who granted Gibbons a presidential pardon.
The two mediators told the BBC that the two-day negotiations see-sawed between hope and concern.
“As we set off, we had been presented with some hope from the Sudanese authorities,” Warsi said. On their arrival Saturday, the day after the demonstrations in Khartoum, she said, they found the goal had changed from winning Gibbons’ early release. “We were faced with a situation where there were calls for a retrial and possibly a much tougher sentence.”
There were divisions within the government, with hard-liners calling for a retrial and newspaper headlines saying, “Shoot This Woman,” Ahmed told BBC. “Others were saying, ‘This is an embarrassment. We need to honor our word.’ ”
“It is an unusual case, which came about as a misunderstanding which was not managed well in the early stages,” said Khalid al Mubarak, a spokesman at the Sudanese Embassy in London.
“If the government intervened in the legal process, there would be an outcry and people would say, ‘They haven’t got an independent judiciary,’ ” Mubarak said. “If they did not intervene, people would say, ‘Look at them, how they treat someone who went there to help in order to teach their children.’ ”
Mubarak said that the pardon was a logical step by the president after the judiciary had imposed a minimum sentence. “She had no idea what she was doing, we are convinced of that,” he said.
Gibbons was eager to emphasize that she had no quarrel with the Sudanese and had enjoyed her time there until her arrest.
Although she was terrified during her eight days in custody, she said she would encourage people to go work there.
“In fact, I know of a lovely school that needs a new Year 2 teacher,” she told reporters at the airport.
The teacher’s release comes on the eve of a British goodwill and peacekeeping mission to meet with the Sudanese president and to visit Sudan’s troubled Darfur region, a sensitive political issue between the two countries.
“This situation has been heavily manipulated by the Sudanese government,” said Gill Lusk, a Sudanese analyst at the London-based newsletter Africa Confidential. “There would be a few people who would be offended by a teddy bear named Muhammad, but most of my Sudanese friends see it as a political issue.
“I think it’s a warning to Western countries in particular saying, ‘Don’t even think of putting troops into Darfur.’ ”