A British teacher accused of insulting Muslims after her class called a teddy bear Mohammed appeared in court in Khartoum yesterday as Sudanese authorities whipped a man outside the courthouse.
Gillian Gibbons, 54, wearing a dark blue skirt and a black blazer, was brought from detention in Khartoum North on the other side of the Blue Nile and British Embassy officials and police accompanied her into the courthouse.
Court officers prevented reporters from entering the courtroom and said the session would be closed.
Later in the session Sudanese police gave a man 20 lashes with a stiff leather whip within meters of where the British consul, Russell Phillips, was sitting on a chair.
The man's family wept and he was hustled away in a fracas. It was not clear what offence he had committed.
Sudanese state media said on Wednesday that Gibbons faced charges of insulting Islam, inciting hatred and showing contempt for religious beliefs. If convicted, she could face 40 lashes, a fine, or one year in jail.
Police let only one member of her defense team inside the small courtroom, which had two rows of plastic and metal seats.
The defense has called several eyewitnesses including colleagues from Unity High School in Khartoum and a teaching assistant who was inside the classroom with Gibbons during the naming of the teddy bear, a defense source said.
Fellow teachers said they did not believe Gibbons had intended to insult Muslims and had made an innocent mistake in endorsing a name chosen by the school children.
In London, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband described the case as an "innocent misunderstanding" and said he wanted to see Gibbons released as soon as possible.
"I shall be meeting the (Sudanese) ambassador later today to express our very strong view there's an innocent misunderstanding about this... Respect for Islam in this country goes deep," he told reporters.
"Sudan's legal system needs to take its course but we hope that common sense will prevail... We look forward to a speedy resolution. We want her freed as soon as possible," he added.
In Washington on Wednesday, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said: "We are following the situation of the British teacher closely and with concern."
A statement from the Sudanese embassy in London said the case came in response to parents' complaints.
"It is now a police case and the temptation to treat it as a media sensation should be resisted. We certainly do not wish to resort to 'trial by media'."
Source: China Daily/Agencies