Gillian… the teddy… shouts and lashes in the courthouse
Khartoum correspondent Opheera McDoom looks back at the “teddy bear saga”
The “teddy bear saga” broke on a Monday with the news that Gillian Gibbons had been arrested by authorities. We’re used to stories of people being taken from their homes at night by armed security forces in Khartoum, so I was caught a little by surprise at the immense interest this case attracted. But as the story grew, the world’s press descended on Khartoum and the adrenalin of covering one of the world’s top stories kicked in.
The court case was an agonising and panicked rush in the morning as no one — not even Gibbons’ defence lawyers — was quite sure where the case was going to be heard. Unusually, she was in court the day after charges were pressed . The judge decided to keep going long into the night, and after the busy courthouse had emptied of its usual crowd, before reaching a verdict.
It was a chaotic scene. I bumped into many of my Sudanese journalist colleagues. I had assumed they were there to cover the case, but instead I found that many journalists from the independent press were there for another reason — they had court cases against them for libel or defamation. The editor of Sudan’s leading independent daily and his deputy — two colleagues I really respect in the profession — were being escorted through the courthouse. They were being released after nearly two weeks in jail for defaming the government. And then a dazed and confused Gibbons was led through a crowd of onlookers to the courtroom, escorted by police.
The judge decided on a closed court, usually reserved for military trials, and the police formed a locked line. Shouting loudly, they gradually pushed the crowd, including defence lawyers, journalists and British embassy officials, back away from the court room. After a screaming match, the head defence lawyer was allowed in and, a few hours later, the British consul too. But journalists were edged further and further away as the long day went on.
Gibbons could have been sentenced to 40 lashes, up to a year in prison or a fine if found guilty of insulting Islam. But on more than one occasion, I was asked in the courthouse by ordinary Sudanese “Is it over yet? What a silly case!” Clearly not all the population were flag and sword-waving fanatics calling for her death (an image most media used of up to 1,000 demonstrators the following day after Friday prayers). Considering that most Sudanese go to mosque on that day, I was surprised at how small the protest was.
Back in the courthouse, I heard a strange sound and saw what I thought were men cleaning or repairing the walls with a strange rod. Later on, when it happened again nearer to the line of police, I realised a man was being lashed after being found guilty of drinking alcohol. Facing the wall and fully clothed, he was smacked with a hard leather whip on the back of his thighs. Less than a metre away, the British consul sat trying to look the other way and pretending to play with his mobile phone as the whipping ended in a shouting match between police and the whippee.
Despite hours of pleading, authorities banned all filming and photography in or anywhere near the building. One cameraman tried to push his luck, and within five minutes, all those carrying cameras were arrested. I spent much of the afternoon trying to get photographers released and their cameras back in between filing updates on the trial.
Then a colleague next to me was arrested. When he asked why, the police said it was because they thought I had taken pictures with my camera. “Then why don’t you arrest her?” he asked. “We don’t speak English, how can we talk to her?” they replied. Trying to rescue him, they soon found out I spoke fluent Arabic.
Later on, as security pushed all the journalists downstairs, I was called upstairs by the guards. “Great, NOW I’m being arrested,” I thought, as I weaved past the guards. But instead, the officer who had been in charge of Gibbons where she was first held said: “We have all her things and we don’t want them — can we give them to you? It’s just a blanket.” A little taken aback, I reminded them I was just a journalist, but they insisted and took me outside to a pick-up with darkened windows. The random “khawajiyya” (foreigner) who spoke Arabic must know where to take the stuff, they thought. The officer then piled up five bags of blankets, duvets, pillows, food (lots of apples) and other things. Fast running out of hands to carry it, I brought my car over and loaded it up before passing the things on to Gibbons’ school.
What a surreal ending. “Does this mean she’s going to be freed?” I asked security. “She’s either going home or going to jail,” they replied. Poor Gillian, I thought. I had visited Omdurman Women’s prison in 2004, and it was no Hilton. Overcrowded, packed with sick women with sick babies who rely on family or Sudanese charities to bring them food, it was a miserable place. And I didn’t imagine it was like French cheese. It didn’t improve with time.
Gillian’s guilty sentence took many by surprise, as the prosecution’s case was so weak and the defence so strong. Her Sudanese Muslim teaching assistant, who was in the classroom with her when the teddy bear’s name of Mohammad was chosen, testified for the defence, as did parents of the pupils. It was an innocent error, they said. And they had seen nothing wrong with it at the time and still did not. The teddy was named after a student by the children. Gillian had done nothing wrong. But despite being found guilty, Gibbons’ sentence was light at just 15 days in jail and then deportation. Many Sudanese remember vividly Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed in the 1980s for his controversial views on Islam, which prompted the then newly-Islamic government to accuse him of apostasy.
While Khartoum may have thought it had satisfied all sides with the verdict, they underestimated the power of the British tabloid press, which had poured into Sudan over the past week. On the hunt for the teddy, which was confiscated as evidence, the journalists — who were used to the UK where they can take pictures or film anywhere and get easy access to information — found Sudan’s working environment strange.
So Gillian finally made it home safe and sound and is back with her family. While I was happy for her, I just wished the hundreds of Sudanese subjected to similar cases were half as lucky.