UpDate: Minnesota Grad Imprisoned For YouTube “Crime” Is Released

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Jan. 7, 2014: The UpTake’s Kathryn G. Nelson has filed this update:

Shezanne “Shez” Cassim, a University of Minnesota graduate from Woodbury, Minn., was granted his freedom Tuesday morning after spending nine months in a United Arab Emirates prison for posting a comedy video on YouTube. Cassim will be flying back to Minnesota sometime this week, his family said.

The PriceWaterhouseCoopers employee who was living in Dubai was charged in December with endangering the UAE’s national security and handed a one-year prison sentence. It was unclear if that judgment included the eight months he had already served or if it was in addition to those months.

On Tuesday, his family received the answer: Cassim was suddenly granted a release and will be flying 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.”

Cassim, who was imprisoned after posting a video that poked fun at young people living in Dubai, gained widespread support from many local political figures, including Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and Gov. Mark Dayton.

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

According to his family, Cassim will be flying to Minnesota along with an unidentified passenger sometime this week. But, said the family’s press contact, Jennifer Gore, additional details of his return are still unclear.

“It’s a 20-hour flight,: Gore said. “It’s a different time zone. It’s a different environment. Anything could happen.”

But, Gore said, Cassim’s family is incredibly excited to finally have him home.

“Now, they’re running around trying to figure out logistics and trying to get ready.“ she said.

Here is Nelson’s original story, published 12-23-13

Despite international protest over his imprisonment, University of Minnesota graduate Shezanne “Shez” Cassim was sentenced Monday to prison for one year in the United Arab Emirates because he posted a “comedy” video on YouTube that UAE authorities did not find funny.

Cassim, 29, was found guilty of violating a UAE “Cyber Crimes Law” and “defaming the UAE society’s image abroad.” He has already been in prison in the UAE for eight months, with the majority of his time spent in small cell in a maximum-security prison located in the desert in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.

The former Woodbury, Minn., resident moved to the UAE after graduating to pursue a career in the airline business. Known for his quick wit and interest in international politics and culture, Cassim was arrested in last April and told he had threatened UAE national security by posting a seemingly innocuous video skit on YouTube.

Titled “Satwa Combat School,” the video poked fun at the tough, gangster-like mannerisms of youth living in the Satwa district of Dubai. This viral film was one of several Cassim and his friends created while living in Dubai and was prefaced with the statement, “The following events are fictional and no offense was intended to the people of Satwa or UAE.”

Cassim’s family recently went public with his plight after failing to make progress on his case in the UAE. Since then, several local political figures have become involved in calling for his release, including Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and Gov. Mark Dayton, also a Democrat.

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

Cassim’s family, which had hoped to have him home for the holidays, was horrified by Monday’s verdict, which included the prison sentence and a fine amounting to the equivalent of $2,725.

“This is so painful and unfair we can hardly believe it,” Cassim’s brother, Shervon Cassim, said Monday. “It would be funny if we weren’t talking about a man’s life — and our family facing Christmas with Shez in jail.”

YouTube Video Gets A Year In Prison

Details on the charges against Cassim, as well as specific information about the “Cyber Crimes Law,” were not provided to his lawyer, Susan Burns, who represents Cassim in the United States.

According to Burns, Cassim was fingerprinted and interrogated during his initial incarceration in early April and forced to sign a document in Arabic, a language that Cassim doesn’t understand. A copy of that document was not provided to Burns and Cassim has been denied representation by an attorney, she said.

“At no time was Cassim made aware that he had been arrested, nor was he ever advised of his rights,” Burns said.

Monday’s verdict was one of many disappointing hearings Cassim has attended in the UAE — many of which were abruptly canceled after his judge failed to appear in court. The judge, who also acted as a jury in his sentencing, did not even request a translation of Cassim’s video until November, seven months into his imprisonment.

“The UAE Court could have found Shezanne Cassim not guilty and released him immediately…With no jury, the judgment and sentence is entirely at the judge’s discretion, and there is no chance for appeal,” the family said in a statement.

The family said they are now trying to determine if Cassim’s eight months already served in prison will count toward the one-year sentence imposed Monday.

Friends expressed shock and anger at Monday’s verdict calling it a “heartbreaking mess.”

Over the last several months, many of his friends rallied around Cassim’s cause pushing public petitions and enlisting the help of Hollywood entertainers -– including comedian Will Ferrell — to call for his release.

Throughout this ordeal, friends have emphasized that Cassim’s case is not unique and that anyone could land in a similar situation.

“He’s just a kid from Minnesota with a wicked sense of humor and a camera phone,” said Cassim’s college friend, Alli Schnurrer. “He could have been anyone we know.”

Calling the case “ridiculous” and “foolish,” Cassim’s college roommate Nick Oswald said the contested video was light-hearted and wasn’t a threat to the UAE’s national security.

“I thought nothing of it when I saw (the video),” Oswald said. “Some could argue that it’s not even that funny. For me, the video is completely innocuous.”

Circulating a petition for Cassim’s release, Oswald said supporters were attempting to indirectly pressure the UAE to release him.

“Shez is subject to the law, and a lot of it is based on Islamic law, which is a far cry from the laws of the Western world,” said Oswald. “The UAE government can lock people up and just throw away the key.”

Friends and family said the political science graduate who dreamed of trekking around the globe now appears gaunt and is having trouble staying busy in his small cell. Visitors are allowed on a limited, supervised basis and Cassim isn’t allowed a paper or pen to draw with or any books to read, said Shervon Cassim.

A petition to release Cassim, along with more information about his case can be found at www.freeshez.com

Bill Sorem

Bill Sorem is a longtime advertising professional who started with Campbell Mithun and ended up with his own agency. After a tour as a sailing fleet manager in the Virgin Islands he turned to database programming as an independent consultant. He has written sailing guides for the British Virgin Islands and Belize, and written for a number of blogs. In 2010, he volunteered as a citizen journalist with The UpTake and has stayed on as a video reporter.

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