Page last updated at 19:45 GMT, Tuesday, 21 April 2009 20:45 UK

A teddy bear nightmare in Sudan

Recently divorced, and her children having left home, Gillian Gibbons took the opportunity to travel and teach at the same time - but she got a little more than she bargained for.

She told John Humphrys for the BBC's On the Ropes programme how a teddy bear in a primary school in Khartoum led to her arrest and riots in the streets.

Anyone who is a teacher or had a child in Year Two [in the UK] would recognise Barnaby Bear as being part of the curriculum.

Gillian Gibbons
Gillian Gibbons faced a penalty of 40 lashes, a large fine or a jail term
He goes to different places and sends postcards back, and we use this as a way of introducing the world and geography.

What tends to happen in most schools is the children take Barnaby Bear home with them. They take photographs and write in his diary and stick in the photos, especially if they are going somewhere for the weekend.

One of the children [at the primary school in Khartoum] brought one in but some of the boys in the class thought this was a bit babyish, so to make them feel more part of it I let them choose his name.

They actually named it Mohammed after a little boy in the class who is very popular. Schoolchildren borrowed him and took him home; none of the parents complained.

Then there a discussion in the school with certain people about whether it was appropriate [to name a teddy Mohammed].

When I realised I had caused offence I was extremely upset. I apologised and that seemed to be the end of it.

But four weeks later the headmaster came to me and said some of the Muslim teachers had complained about it and said I had to stop the [bear] project. So I told the class that the little girl who had brought in the bear was missing him and would take him home.

Sudanese demonstrators burn a newspaper bearing the photo of Gillian Gibbons
After Mrs Gibbons's 15-day term was imposed, crowds of people marched in Khartoum to call for a tougher sentence

I never really found out who it was who actually went to the Ministry of Education to complain about it. On Sunday I went to the local hotel to use the swimming pool like I did every Sunday and when I came back the head teacher and deputy head teacher were there waiting for me. They said the police were coming to interview me.

When the police arrived they came with soldiers with machine guns and a warrant for my arrest. For the first time I realised the situation had got very serious.

It was confusing - terrifying - surreal, really. They put me in a police cell and they said they were going to organise bail for me. I waited for three hours then finally I asked for some water and they brought me in a plastic bag that the school had sent for me and it was then that I realised that I wouldn't be going back home.

The problem with Sudanese jails is they don't have any furniture in the cell - no chairs or beds - so basically if your relatives don't send you any bedding you sleep on the floor. I actually stood up all night because the floor was filthy.

I was lying on the floor when suddenly the door of my cell opened. I thought, oh well, this is when something horrible is going to happen to me

Eventually people [arrived] from the British embassy and they got in touch with my next of kin. That was when I realised my whole world had caved in.

They told me it had been in the Sudanese press, there had been demonstrations and that the police said they were holding me for my own safety.

I was never actually charged. But they kept telling me that it would never go to court and that if it did it would be thrown out so all the time I had the expectation that the nightmare would end.

I wasn't treated badly in the police station. It wasn't a three-star hotel, but after a while they realised I wasn't this evil person, just a middle-aged woman who'd been caught up in this.

On the third day I was told I was going to the airport and I was bundled into a jeep with an armed escort. When we crossed the river I knew we were not going to the airport because we were going the wrong way - and then we arrived at another jail.

I was the only prisoner - it was brand new jail. It was worse in some ways sitting there with your own imagination.

In the middle of the night, I was lying on the floor when suddenly the door of my cell opened. I thought, oh well, this is when something horrible is going to happen to me.

The next minute they march in with a bed - a present from the Ministry of the Interior - and proceeded to make it up and sweep out my cell.

That bed changed my life because I could sit on it during the day and sleep on it during the night so it really was the best present anyone has given me.

Unity High School
Mrs Gibbons was convicted of insulting Islam after another member of staff at Unity High School complained to the Ministry of Education

Eventually the school found me a lawyer but I did not see him until the day of the trial; I saw his assistants the night before after they had been waiting all day.

I arrived in the courthouse and it was full of people and it was really noisy. Soldiers everywhere with guns, the press shouting at me.

As the trial proceeded they produced this teddy bear out of a plastic bag and sat him in front of the judge.

They pointed and said "Was this the bear?" as if the poor bear was on trial - you could almost see him shivering! Even in all that stress I could see the funny side.

They gave me a chance to speak. It caused an eerie silence in the court.

I think it was the sincerity with which I spoke - I think even the prosecution lawyers realised I was just just a middle-aged woman. The demonstrators outside had been told I was part of a conspiracy - Salman Rushdie, the Danish cartoonist and me.

When the judge gave his guilty verdict I was whisked off back to the cell. They gave me 15 days and I had already served five but they had to give me more because the prosecution had 10 days to appeal against the leniency of my sentence.

One more bizarre thing in the string of many was [the appearance, totally unexpectedly, of the UK peers] Lord Ahmed and Lady Varsi. And they said they were going to appeal to the president on my behalf.

Baroness Warsi and Lord Ahmed meet President Omar al-Bashir
On the third day of their visit, Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi met Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir

By this stage I was being really well treated by the guards, they'd even put bottled water in the fridge, didn't even lock me in any more. But there was always the possibility that [the good treatment] could end in a moment.

[The two peers had arranged my freedom but] it was only when the plane took off that I believed it was happening.

I've always taken responsibility for what happened. The fact that it turned into an international incident was not my fault, others used it.

The most touching thing of all were the messages I received from Muslims because I had said I still had respect for the religion. I was very concerned when I got back that I would be perceived as a racist. But if I could turn back time to the day when we chose the name I would change it all.

At the time being in that situation was so stressful, I carry around the guilt -- the school was damaged by it and my family and friends could not even sleep.

I was very happy in Sudan and would be more than happy to be working there now.

On the Ropes was broadcast on Tuesday 21 April on BBC Radio 4.

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