Washington – A University of Minnesota graduate from Woodbury has been detained in a maximum-security prison in Abu Dhabi since June after posting a YouTube video that the United Arab Emirates claims violates its federal cyber crimes law and poses a threat to national security there.
Family members of Shezanne “Shez” Cassim, 29, say the 19-minute video, “Ultimate Combat System: The Deadly Satwa G’s,” was intended as a spoof on youth culture in Dubai, where he has lived and worked since graduating from the U in 2006.
Dubai authorities jailed Cassim and revoked his passport on April 7 after questioning him about the video, said Susan Burns, the Minnesota lawyer hired by Cassim’s family.
In June Cassim was transferred to Al-Wathba Prison in Abu Dhabi, along with several other people featured in the video, including two Emirati citizens.
Cassim produced and uploaded the video in October 2012 with a disclaimer that read, “The video is fictional and no offence [sic] was intended to the United Arab Emirates or to the people of Satwa.” Al Satwa is a popular dining and shopping area in Dubai.
The YouTube account Cassim used to post the video also features a blooper reel from the shoot.
Cassim’s mock documentary profiles the fictional “Satwa Combat School,” where students learn to throw sandals as weapons, strike opponents with pieces of belt-like fabric and use cellphones and Twitter to request backup if they are threatened.
In the video, the instructor tells Cassim that rappers Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur are personal friends and notes former Al Satwa residents who “moved to California for the education.”
At the end of the video, master students are presented not with a black belt, but with replica jerseys of Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi.
“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,” said Cassim’s brother, Shervon Cassim, of Durham, N.C.
A U.S. citizen, Shezanne Cassim was born in Sri Lanka. Before his arrest, he worked as a consultant in Dubai, a finance and commerce hub in the Middle East.
No trial date set
Family members said the presiding judge in Cassim’s case has denied him bail three times and has yet to set a trial date.
Members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, including Democratic Senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, have tried to intervene in the matter, pressing the United Arab Emirates’ U.S. ambassador for answers.
Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., spoke to the family by phone Tuesday, aides said.
According to the U.S. State Department, more than 3,500 Americans were arrested abroad in 2010, the latest year for which data is available.
Transcript just requested
The U.S. government cannot force foreign governments to release Americans whom they have imprisoned, but it can insist on immediate access to jailed Americans, provide a list of local attorneys, supply information on a country’s legal system, offer to contact the individual’s family or friends and ensure that the State Department is kept informed.
The department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs may not reveal information regarding an individual American without the express consent of that individual.
Cassim’s father, Sanath Cassim, who has business experience in the region, has lived there since the summer, hoping to secure his son’s release.
Burns, the family lawyer in Minnesota, said the judge only recently requested a transcript, so he can determine what Cassim and his friends are saying during the video.
The Star Tribune could not reach Cassim’s direct attorney, Ghassan El-Daye, legal director for DLA Piper in Dubai, for comment.
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell