Khartoum, Sudan — A Sudanese court convicted a British teacher Thursday of insulting Islam for letting her students name a teddy bear Muhammad and sentenced her to 15 days in prison, avoiding a heavier punishment of 40 lashes. The teacher wept in court, insisting she never meant to offend.
The sentence and quick seven-hour trial were aimed at swiftly resolving the case, which had put Sudan's government in an embarrassing position - facing the anger of Britain on one side and potential trouble from powerful Islamic hard-liners on the other.
The defense said the case was sparked by a school secretary with a grudge. But it escalated as Muslim clerics sought to drum up public outrage against what it called a Western plot to insult Islam's Prophet Muhammad and demanding that teacher Gillian Gibbons be punished.
Officials were trying to tamp down public anger in the face of hard-line calls for protests after Muslim prayers today.
The government, which has often touted its Islamic credentials, encouraged past protests over cartoons seen as insulting the prophet published in European papers. But its moves now suggested it feared the case could hurt its reputation in the West.
Gibbons "was in tears" when she testified in court Thursday, a member of her defense team, Abdel-Khaliq Abdallah, told The Associated Press.
"She said that she never wanted to insult Islam" by allowing the children to name the stuffed toy Muhammad, a common name among Muslim men, the lawyer said, speaking outside the courtroom. Media were barred from the chamber.
Gibbons, 54, was found guilty of "insulting the faith of Muslims" and sentenced to 15 days in jail, followed by deportation, said Ali Mohammed Ajab, a human rights lawyer on the defense team.
The charge is a lesser offense in the article of the criminal code under which she was tried, which includes several possible charges.
Prosecutors had pressed for conviction on a heavier charge under the same article - inciting religious hatred, which carries a punishment of up to 40 lashes, six months in prison and a fine.
A judge leaving the courtroom confirmed the verdict to reporters, but refused to give his name.
Britain said it was "extremely disappointed with the sentence." London had been conducting delicate diplomatic efforts to ensure she received no punishment for what it said was a "misunderstanding."
The case began with a classroom project on animals in September at the private school, which has 750 students from elementary to high school levels, most from wealthy Sudanese Muslim families.
Gibbons had one of her 7-year-old students bring in a teddy bear, then asked the class to name it and they chose the name Muhammad.
Each student then took the teddy bear home to write a diary entry about it, and the entries were compiled into a book with the bear's picture on the cover, titled "My Name is Muhammad," Boulos said.
But an office assistant at the school, Sara Khawad, complained to the Ministry of Education that Gibbons had insulted the prophet. Khawad testified at Thursday's trial, chief defense lawyer Kamal Djizouri said.
Khawad "was doing this out of revenge against the administration," Djizouri said. He did not elaborate. But the director of the school's Parent-Teacher Association, Isam Abu Hasabu, claimed Khawad had argued with the principal before the incident.