KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) – Only Sudan’s president has the power to pardon a British teacher sentenced to 15 days imprisonment for insulting Islam, said the justice minister on Sunday as British Muslim parliamentarians pushed to meet the Sudanese leader.
Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Lord Nazir Ahmed of the House of Lords moved into a second day of meetings with officials early in the morning Sunday with an eventual goal of obtaining a pardon for Gillian Gibbons from President Omar al-Bashir.
“Any early pardon would be the exclusive prerogative of the president, I can’t talk any more about it,” said Justice Minister Ali al-Mardhi to the Associated Press, adding that he had only just returned from a meeting in Cairo the night before and had yet to meet with the British delegation.
Gibbons’ chief lawyer, Kamal al-Gizouli, was optimistic on Sunday for the chances of the British delegation to secure the teacher’s release, in part because the whole affair has become an international embarassment to the government. “They want to get rid of the problem and the visit of the British lords would be a good opportunity,” he said. “This case is a headache for the government, I would not be surprised if Gibbons was released today or tomorrow.”
No government official, however, has made any kind of hint about an early release and members of the president’s entourage were not available for comment on Sunday.
The British embassy, meanwhile, said that Gibbons was in good health.
“The ambassador called on Miss Gibbons this morning and she was fine,” said Omar Daair, embassy spokesman in Khartoum. He did not give any further details.
Late on Saturday, Britain’s Channel 4 News also quoted Gibbons, as saying in a statement from police custody that she was being treated well.
“I’m fine. I’m well,” Channel 4 quoted Gibbons as saying. “I want people to know I’ve been well treated, and especially that I’m well fed. I’ve been given so many apples I feel I could set up my own stall. The guards are constantly asking if I have everything I need.”
“The Sudanese people in general have been pleasant and very generous, and I’ve had nothing but good experiences during my four months here. I’m really sad to leave, and if I could go back to work tomorrow then I would.”
Concern for Gibbons’ safety was sparked Friday after thousands of Sudanese, many armed with clubs and swords and beating drums, burned pictures of her and demanded her execution during a rally in the capital Khartoum. “The Sudanese government (does) want to resolve this matter. … (We) hope we can come to an amicable resolution soon,” Warsi said after she and Ahmed met Sudanese officials Saturday.
“They’ve been very positive so far,” Ahmed said in an interview with the BBC. “We’ve had very frank discussions, and we are very hopeful that … we’ll be meeting more ministers and officials and this will continue until such time as we can reach a satisfactory conclusion.”
Gibbons, 54, was sentenced Thursday to 15 days in jail and deportation for insulting Islam by allowing her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad, the name of Islam’s prophet.
The naming was part of a class project for her 7-year-old students at a private school in Sudan.
Gibbons was moved from the Omdurman women’s prison to a secret location on Friday after the angry demonstrations against her.
There was no overt sign that the government organized the protest, but such a rally could not have taken place without at least official assent.
The teacher’s conviction under Sudan’s Islamic Sharia law shocked Britons, and the British government has said it was working with Sudan’s regime to win her release.
Gibbons escaped harsher punishment that could have included up to 40 lashes, six months in prison and a fine. Her time in jail since her arrest Sunday counts toward the sentence.
During her trial, the weeping teacher said she had intended no harm. Her students, overwhelmingly Muslim, chose the name for the bear, and Muhammad is one of the most common names for men in the Arab world. Muslim scholars generally agree that intent is a key factor in determining if someone has violated Islamic rules against insulting the prophet.
But the case was caught up in the ideology that al-Bashir’s Islamic regime has long instilled in Sudan, a mix of anti-colonialism, religious fundamentalism and a sense that the West is besieging Islam.
The uproar comes as the U.N. is accusing Sudan of dragging its feet on the deployment of peacekeepers in the western Sudanese Darfur region.