Hey, it’s better than being shot

AFP/Getty Images So, British teacher Gillian Gibbons is going to a Sudanese jail for 15 days for insulting religion by allowing her class of primary school children to name a teddy bear “Mohammed.” (Since she has already served five days, she only has 10 left.) Gibbons escaped a far harsher potential punishment. If she had ...

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A Sudanese woman adjusts a teddy bear at a shop in Khartoum, 27 November 2007. Sudanese authorities said today they were stepping up an investigation into a British teacher held for allegedly insulting Islam's prophet by allowing children to call a teddy bear Mohammed. AFP PHOTO/ISAM AL-HAJ (Photo credit should read Isam Al-Haj/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP/Getty Images

So, British teacher Gillian Gibbons is going to a Sudanese jail for 15 days for insulting religion by allowing her class of primary school children to name a teddy bear "Mohammed." (Since she has already served five days, she only has 10 left.) Gibbons escaped a far harsher potential punishment. If she had been found guilty of all three charges levied against her (the others were inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs), she could have faced 40 lashes and six months in prison.  

British Foreign Secretary David Milband has already hauled the Sudanese ambassador into his office to express "in the strongest terms" his concern about her arrest. During their meeting, he also spoke on the phone to Sudan's acting foreign minister.

AFP/Getty Images

So, British teacher Gillian Gibbons is going to a Sudanese jail for 15 days for insulting religion by allowing her class of primary school children to name a teddy bear “Mohammed.” (Since she has already served five days, she only has 10 left.) Gibbons escaped a far harsher potential punishment. If she had been found guilty of all three charges levied against her (the others were inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs), she could have faced 40 lashes and six months in prison.  

British Foreign Secretary David Milband has already hauled the Sudanese ambassador into his office to express “in the strongest terms” his concern about her arrest. During their meeting, he also spoke on the phone to Sudan’s acting foreign minister.

Will Prime Minister Gordon Brown also get involved? This case reminds me of the infamous Singapore case of 1994, when American teenager Michael Fay was sentenced to a fine and six lashes with a cane for vandalizing cars and stealing road signs. Two dozen U.S. senators wrote letters to Singapore asking for clemency. But it wasn’t until after President Clinton complained to his counterpart in Singapore that Fay’s sentence was reduced to four lashes. 

At the time, Singapore protested that the United States shouldn’t get involved with its domestic affairs. So far, the case of the British schoolteacher hasn’t touched on the always-touchy issue of sovereignty, but will it? And should it?

It seems to me that in both cases, there’s been a fair, but not necessarily satisfactory, result. In the case of Michael Fay, the laws were clearly laid out, the punishment was defined, and the sentence enforced, albeit at a softer level due to diplomacy. In the case of Gillian Gibbons, the laws may not have been laid out as clearly, but given the tensions between Islam and the West, Gibbons should have perhaps been more sensitive about what can be given the name “Mohammed” and acted more cautiously. Forty lashes and six months in prison—to say nothing of being shot, which is what some in Khartoum are calling for—would have been outrageous for an innocent mistake. But the fact that the Sudanese courts sentenced her to a few days in jail, given the alternative, seems to be an acceptable compromise that shows a modicum of respect for Sudanese sovereignty. Better yet would be if they would just release her right now and end this farce.

Christine Y. Chen is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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