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Supporters rally for Minnesota native held in United Arab Emirates maximum security prison

WOODBURY, Minn. – U.S. officials and human rights advocates are calling on the United Arab Emirates government to release a Woodbury High School graduate who’s been held in a maximum security prison for eight months for posting a mockumentary YouTube video.

Shezanne “Shez” Cassim’s “Deadly Satwa Gs” video landed him in the Abu Dhabi prison for allegedly violating United Arab Emirates’ cyber-crimes law and threatening the UAE’s national security.

University of Minnesota Human Rights program leaders marked the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, saying UAE’s actions violate Cassim’s freedom of speech and expression.

Program director Barbara Frey said Cassim, a U.S. citizen who’s been working as a business consultant in the aviation division of PricewaterhouseCooper, has had limited access to legal counsel and family visits, all in violation of his rights as a citizen and resident of a country that is a member of the United Nations.

The 29-year-old U of M alumnus made the video to poke fun at a district of Dubai, Al Satwa, which is a community composed of shops, restaurants and private residential housing. It starts off with a disclaimer warning viewers of its intentions not to be offensive.

“This is a video that any one of us and any of our students might have posted to YouTube,” Frey said of “Deadly Satwa Gs,” noting that it was meant to be a joke. “We all know this is no joking matter,” she said of Cassim’s subsequent incarceration.

The mockumentary-style video is narrated by Cassim, who interviews a martial arts instructor supposedly teaching “Satwa fighting” using weapons like shoes and throwing them at targets made of paper.

It starts off by visiting a makeshift martial arts school and continues with so-called fighters patrolling the streets of the city trying to help women understand how dangerous the area can be with “big gangsters” hanging around.

Politicians appalled

U.S. Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, along with Congresswoman Betty McCollum say they were appalled by the UAE’s response to the video.

Officials in Washington, D.C., continue to work with the secretary of state and ambassadors in the U.S. and UAE to speed up Cassim’s legal procedures that have been delayed numerous times.

“A young man should not be put in jail for posting an online video,” Klobuchar said in a news release. “We will not stop our work until we get justice for Shezanne.”

Klobuchar also met with the U.S. ambassador to the UAE, Michael Corbin, who promised to send his staff to visit Cassim and help ensure his safety.

Cassim’s family and friends say the video is not political or violent but simply a reflection of Shez’s sarcastic personality.

“He’s a prankster,” his sister Shalali said. “He would pull pranks on our grandmother; he would pull pranks on us. He always wanted to make people laugh.”

His brother Shervon said Shez was first interrogated by the authorities, who laughed at him and wouldn’t allow him to take down the video when he offered.

It’s ironic, he said, that the Dubai International Film Festival was underway and yet his brother is being held in prison there for making a spoof video.

“It is not what we’ve come to expect from a modern society,” the family’s Minnesota lawyer, Susan Burns, said of the country’s due process.

Charges were filed against Cassim under UAE’s cyber-crime law, which was enacted late last year, Burns said, though it’s not exactly clear how the video violates those laws.

“It frankly baffled everyone how a comedy video could be seen as a national security threat,” she said.

Cassim was forced to sign a legal document written in Arabic despite the fact that he doesn’t speak the language, she added. He’s also been denied bail three times and could only speak with his lawyer through glass with guards present.

All six of his court hearings have been rescheduled, two of them because the judge did not show up, Burns said.

“The United Arab Emirates promotes itself as a modern country adhering to universal laws,” she said. “This case, however, indicates the opposite.”

UAE officials have not explained what in the video prompted them to arrest Cassim, the family said. They’ve reached out to the White House for help releasing their son, who’s been held in a cell for 255 days.

‘Going stir crazy’

“He’s going stir crazy in that cell,” Shervon said. “He’s been in detention for eight months; he’s going stir crazy.”

Cassim’s case has garnered social media attention from all over the world, with more than 2,000 signing an online petition to release the filmmaker.

About a dozen U of M students attended the Dec. 10 event wearing T-shirts with Cassim’s photo on the front and holding yellow posters displaying the Twitter hashtag “#freeshez.”

Minnesota-based producer and friend of Cassim’s, Justin Buck, said he wasn’t surprised by the video, an example of Cassim’s sense of humor.

“There is this notion of trying to uphold this image of the city no matter what,” he said of the UAE’s reaction to “Deadly Satwa Gs.”

If that’s the case, he said, then agents like Tom Cruise’s character in “Mission Impossible 3,” shot in Dubai, should also be detained.

U of M grad Amelia Shindelar said Cassim has been treated unfairly for doing something most of his peers have done at least once.

“We’ve all posted a bad joke to social media,” she said. “And for all of us that’s the end of it.”

A typical suburb

Al Satwa is like any other typical American suburb, according to Cassim’s family members, who are originally from Sri Lanka and lived in Dubai for several years. The city is bound to have its cliques of teenagers loving technology and embracing various aspects of pop culture.

They say a video mocking that culture is similar to any “Funny or Die” or “Saturday Night Live” references.

“It’s like Woodbury. It’s like any other suburb you would be familiar with,” Shalali said. “It’s just a group of teenagers that he was making fun of.”

The family hopes the work of the U of M, as well as the response from U. S. officials, will yield positive results.

“I just want him home,” said Jean Cassim, Shez’s mother. “It’s just a nightmare to me. I want it to be over.”

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Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.