MINNEAPOLIS — An American man who works in the United Arab Emirates has been held in a maximum-security prison for months after posting a parody video about youth culture in Dubai, a rights group and family attorney said today.
Shezanne Cassim, 29, of Woodbury, Minn., was arrested in April and charged with violating a 2012 cybercrimes law that boosts penalties for allegedly challenging authorities, attorney Susan Burns said. He was moved to a maximum security prison in Abu Dhabi in June.
He’s been accused of endangering national security, and is the first foreigner arrested under tougher measures governing Internet use in the United Arab Emirates, according to the London-based Emirates Center for Human Rights.
Cassim has entered a not guilty plea in court, and has made a statement about his involvement in the video, which he created and posted online in 2012, said Cassim’s brother, Shervon.
Shezanne Cassim was born in Sri Lanka and is a U.S. citizen. He moved to Dubai after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He worked for Emirates Airline before taking a job this spring as a business consultant in the aviation division of PricewaterhouseCoopers, Shervon Cassim said.
The family was initially told a verdict would be issued Oct. 28, but the verdict has been postponed five times, most recently because a judge was waiting for an Arabic translation of the video.
“And in all this time, they have refused to grant bail, with no explanation given,” Shervon Cassim said. His brother’s next court date is Dec. 16.
United Arab Emirates authorities did not return messages seeking comment. The U.S. Embassy had no comment. A message left with the U.S. State Department was not returned, and Cassim’s attorney in Dubai said in an email he had no comment.
Mike Davies, director of global public relations for PricewaterhouseCoopers, said the company was looking into the matter.
The case reflects a wider crackdown by Gulf Arab authorities on social media use. In the past two years, dozens of people have been arrested for Twitter posts deemed offensive to leaders or for social media campaigns urging more political openness.
Burns said the video was posted on YouTube in October 2012, roughly a month before the cybercrimes law was enacted in the United Arab Emirates. Burns said her understanding of the law includes penalties of temporary imprisonment and a fine up to nearly $250,000.
The video, called “Satwa Combat School,” is set in the Satwa district of Dubai. The family said in a statement that the comedy pokes fun at Dubai teenagers who called themselves “gangstas,” but were known instead for mild behavior. The video shows fictional “combat” training, including throwing a sandal and using a cellphone to call for help. It opens with text saying the video is fictional and is not meant to offend.
“It’s tragic. It’s something that can happen to anybody, especially young people who post all the time on YouTube,” Burns said. “To be incarcerated over something that’s clearly a joke, clearly meant in jest, clearly meant in good humor — and held for seven months — is a violation of human rights.”
Shervon Cassim, who spent two months in Dubai trying to help his brother, said the family wants authorities there to “realize that this is not worth their time and just release him.”
“At a time when the United Arab Emirates is holding itself out as a modern country, it is sadly ironic and a poor image to present to the world that it continues to imprison my brother for uploading a silly video,” he said.