MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — An American who’s been held in the United Arab Emirates for nine months in connection with a satirical online video about youth culture in Dubai was expected to be released soon, the U.S. State Department said Tuesday.
Shezanne Cassim, 29, of Woodbury, Minn., was arrested in April, six months after he and others uploaded their spoof documentary to the Internet.
The United Arab Emirates-owned daily, The National, has said Cassim and his co-defendants were accused of defaming the country’s image abroad. Cassim’s supporters said he was charged with endangering state security under a 2012 cybercrimes law that tightened penalties for challenging authorities.
Cassim has been in the maximum security prison at Abu Dhabi since June. In December, he was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison, a fine and deportation.
Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a State Department spokeswoman, said Tuesday that Cassim has been moved to a deportation facility for processing.
“We understand processing will take a few days at which point he will be returning to the United States,” she said, adding: “We continue to work closely with the UAE authorities to ensure his quick release.”
Cassim’s family said Cassim is out of his cell block and in a deportation processing section of the prison. They expect him to return home this week.
“I can’t tell you how relieved our family is by this turn of events,” Cassim’s brother, Shervon Cassim, said in a statement. “We are very excited, and we are grateful to everyone who worked to free Shez.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Cassim has been credited with pre-trial detention time and given time off for good behavior.
Rori Donaghy, director of the London-based Emirates Center for Human Rights, said a defendant’s release after serving three-fourths of a sentence is customary.
Donaghy said Cassim and his friends never should have been imprisoned, and the cybercrimes law needs to be changed, as authorities have continued to use it to restrict free speech.
Cassim, a U.S. citizen, was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Dubai for work after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2006. He became the public face of the defendants after his family launched an effort to publicize his months-long incarceration.
Seven others were convicted with him in December. Two Indian defendants received similar sentences, while two Emirati brothers received lighter sentences. Donaghy said the Emiratis have been released. Three others — a Canadian, Briton and an American — were convicted and sentenced in absentia. They have never been detained.
Donaghy said another Emirati who spoke out in support of the amateur filmmakers was arrested and remains imprisoned.
Gulf Arab authorities have been cracking down on social media use over the past two years, with dozens of people arrested across the region for Twitter posts deemed offensive to leaders or for social media campaigns urging more political openness.
Cassim’s video, titled “Ultimate Combat System: The Deadly Satwa Gs,” is set in the Satwa district of Dubai. It is a documentary-style video that pokes fun at Dubai youth who styled themselves “gangstas” but are not particularly thuggish, and shows fictional “combat” training that includes throwing a sandal and using a mobile phone to call for help.
It opens with text saying the video is fictional and is not meant to offend.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who worked on Cassim’s release and pushed to have his sentence include time served, said: “Jailing this young man for months for posting a harmless video made absolutely no sense, especially in a country that prides itself on being a tolerant and just nation.”
Susan Burns, an attorney for the family in the U.S., called the United Arab Emirates’ legal system archaic and unfair. She said it’s great that Cassim is coming home but said “it’s ridiculous that he was ever charged and put in prison for 275 days in the first place.”
The case has drawn attention from celebrity comedians in the U.S. The comedy video website Funny or Die, co-founded by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, posted a video in December to raise awareness about Cassim’s situation.
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