Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s pardon of a jailed British school teacher accused of insulting Islam has dampened a potential crisis over threats to impose harsh sharia legal penalties against a westerner. The private school teacher, Gillian Gibbons, whose 7-year-old Khartoum pupils named their classroom project teddy bear after Muhammad, the founding prophet of Islam, left Khartoum yesterday on a flight to London following a stopover in Dubai.
American Professor of English Eric Reeves, who is a Sudan activist at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, questions the alleged gravity of Gibbons’ offense. He says that far from being a signal of moderation, the president’s pardon diverts attention from enforcement of a December 31 target date for the implementation of an international peacekeeping force for Sudan’s western Darfur region.
"There was nothing in it for Khartoum to keep Ms. Gibbons any longer. She was not going to be sent to jail for any lengthy period of time. She was just a means of changing the subject. Anybody who thought that Khartoum was going to go to the mat on this one just doesn’t know how this regime works,” he said.
At the urging of two Muslim members of Britain’s House of Lords who met with the Sudanese leader, President Bashir issued his pardon on Monday. It followed an angry protest march through the streets of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum on Friday by hundreds of outraged religious activists denouncing what they claimed was the leniency of Gibbons’ 15-day prison sentence. Although Sudan enforces strict Islamic sharia law against offenders who insult the Islamic religion, British officials described Gibbons’ permission for the youths to assign one of Islam’s most often used names in a school project about animals as an innocent mistake. However, Professor Reeves points out the disruption occurred at a time when UN officials, aid organizations, and various governments had been strongly urging the Khartoum government to let international troops patrol Sudanese soil in the very contentious western region of Darfur.
“It changes the subject. The subject that we should be speaking about is of course, Khartoum’s imminent success in forestalling the deployment of the UNAMID force (UN African Union Mission in Darfur) authorized by UN Security Council Resolution 1769,” he pointed out.
Hard-line critics in Sudan have cited the teddy bear incident as the latest western attempt to undermine Islam, an accusation that surfaced early this year after the publication of derogatory cartoons in a Danish publication. Bashir’s resistance of western peacekeepers has so far insisted on the exclusion of Scandinavian troops, since several northern European newspapers ran the unflattering cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Rather than instigating a full-fledged controversy, the Sudanese judge handed down a lighter sentence than the maximum six months and forty whiplashes. President Bashir’s intervention for Ms. Gibbons runs contrary to many of his key conservative backers, who had sought the death penalty. But Professor Reeves warns that the incident overshadows the danger of Khartoum’s stalling on granting final approval of a Darfur intervention force and says if that fails to be implemented by the end of the year, various aid groups and hard-pressed contingents of the African Union force already on the ground will be forced to leave.
“If it’s aborted, the African Union mission presently providing the only security for civilians and humanitarians will withdraw. They’ve been desperately trying to stay until December 31, when this was to become a UN mission. But if a UN mission is aborted, Senegal will probably lead the way. But all the African countries will withdraw, and that will leave no protection for humanitarians or civilians of any sort, not even an international aid presence,” he said.