Washington – A United Arab Emirates judge sentenced Shezanne “Shez” Cassim to a year in prison for posting a mock documentary to YouTube, but has yet to announce if the former Minnesotan will receive credit for the 260 days he already has spent behind bars in Abu Dhabi.
The ruling is the latest twist in a legal case that has puzzled U.S. State Department officials and international observers, and left the Cassim family reeling.
The State Department did not respond to requests Monday for comment on Cassim’s sentencing.
During Cassim’s eight-month imprisonment, Emirati authorities postponed or canceled at least six court hearings, limited his contact with friends and family, and allegedly forced him to sign documents in Arabic that he did not understand.
“Given the lack of transparency in the process so far, we’re not going to believe anything until we have him in our arms” at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, said Cassim’s brother, Shervon Cassim.
A Sri Lankan-born U.S. citizen, Shezanne Cassim has lived and worked in Dubai as a business consultant since graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2006.
Emirati officials said “Ultimate Combat School: The Deadly Satwa Gs,” a parody he filmed and uploaded to YouTube in fall 2012, violated newly established federal cybercrimes laws and posed a threat to national security.
Beginning with a statement that explains the video is fictional, the spoof parodied the life of would-be street thugs in the suburban Satwa district of Dubai.
Despite the caveat, authorities in Dubai jailed Cassim in April, along with several friends featured in the 19-minute video. Cassim and the others were transferred in June to an Abu Dhabi prison, where they’ve been imprisoned since.
Calling for Cassim’s immediate release, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum said his yearlong sentence is “an appalling attack on intellectual freedom and basic human rights.” McCollum, D-Minn., represents Woodbury, where his parents now live.
Emirati authorities say they will deport Cassim — once he completes his sentence.
But Cassim’s release date remains a mystery.
“This is not justice,” Shervon Cassim said.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, Michael Corbin, has tried unsuccessfully to secure Cassim’s release. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., discussed the case with Corbin on Monday, and he’s still hopeful that Emirati officials will grant Cassim time served.
“This sentence is unduly harsh for a parody video of this kind,” said State Department spokesman Noel Clay. “We have raised our concerns with UAE officials on the cybercrimes law and its effect on freedom of expression.”
The case has drawn international attention from human rights groups and comedic celebrities.
It also has shone a light on the legal system in the Emirates, a U.S. ally that is working to establish itself as an international hub for culture and trade.
The judge in the case didn’t request an Arabic translation of the English video until Cassim had already spent more than seven months in jail.
Family members said Cassim signed documents in Arabic while under pressure from police.
Experts on life in the Gulf Arab nation said authorities there go to great lengths to protect the country’s image and are leery about the use of social media in the wake of Arab Spring uprisings.
Officials there apparently did not take kindly to Cassim’s video poking fun at life in the Emirates, especially one that references the power of Twitter to rally reinforcements during conflicts.
According to the National, a government-owned newspaper in Abu Dhabi, authorities accused the defendants of “defaming the U.A.E. society’s image abroad.”
Human rights groups said any damage to the U.A.E.’s image has been self-inflicted.
“These filmmakers have been convicted of harming the U.A.E.’s reputation, but the only people doing this are the authorities,” said Rori Donaghy, director of the London-based Emirates Centre for Human Rights. “This should be a warning to all expatriates living in Dubai that authorities consider making a joke to be a state security crime.”
Before his family relocated to Minnesota in the early 2000s and became U.S. citizens, Cassim spent much of his youth in the Emirates. To his family’s dismay, he’ll be there awhile longer now.
“We aren’t sure what we’re going to do,” said Shervon Cassim. “We are absolutely hurt and outraged.”
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell