A Brief Guide How to Keep your Overseas Employees Out of Prison

By: Mike Idziaszczyk

Gillian Gibbons was freed today after spending 4 days in a Sudanese jail for allowing her primary school children to name a teddy bear Mohammed.

There has been a range of views offered by different sides:

• The majority of British people have condemned her arrest and called it ridiculous

• Muslim spokespersons in Britain have said that the punishment is far too harsh

• Gill Lusk, associate editor of Africa Confidential and specialist on Sudan has said that religion is never mocked or satirised in Sudan and that is unthinkable to call a toy or pet a religious name. You’re not supposed to give a religious name to any objects as it may be seen as idolatry

• However, others feel that intent is the important factor. As the teacher did not mean to cause offence she should not be punished. An author of a Sudanese paper says that “If she made an innocent mistake and did not mean Mohammed the Prophet (when naming the bear) there is no problem. But if she did mean Mohammed the Prophet, she must die.”

• Gillian’s employer, the head teacher at the school, said that ‘it is a very fair verdict’. Referring to Gillian’s original sentence of 15 days in prison.

What are the main implications for employers sending employees to work overseas?

• Leadership – Employers should work to ensure that employees they send to work overseas will have appropriate leaders/superiors, who set a good example of the local customs, to follow. In this case Gillian’s employer said that her sentence was ‘very fair’ and yet he did not make her aware of her mistake in naming the teddy Mohammed and did nothing to stop her.

• Responsibility – Employers should have a policy for whose responsibility it is to help individual employees abide by local laws and customs. Is it solely the individual’s responsibility to make themselves aware of laws and customs? When sending employees overseas to work, employers should research and provide guidance to employees on expatriate living and working.

• Guidance for Expatriates – There does seem to be limited guidance for expatriates on the local laws of Sudan. The Islamic laws, and Shari law imposed in Northern Sudan, vary in strictness and may be interpreted differently in different areas. This has contributed to confusion over whether Gillian should be punished for naming the teddy Mohammed or not. In areas where laws are known to be strict and punishments severe, as in Northern Sudan, employers should ensure the law is properly researched and communicated to employees. Employees should also be encouraged to be cautious.

• Impact or Intent? – There is a question about whether the important aspect of the case is about the impact or the intent. In Britain we tend to focus on the impact of a criminal offence and state that not knowing the law is not a defence. However, in this case it appears that intent has been an important influencing factor. As Gillian did not mean to cause offence she has been punished much less severely than she might have been.

• Social Identity Theory – the seeming overreactions of some Sudanese people to Gillian’s case may in part be explained by Social Identity Theory. This theory describes how we define ourselves and associate ourselves with others to form groups. For Muslims in Sudan, religion is very important to individuals’ concepts of ‘self’ and their group membership. They would therefore see Gillian as an ‘out group’ member who is attacking the foundations of their group by not respecting Mohammed the Prophet.

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