In its bid to become a global commercial and cultural capital, the United Arab Emirates has tried to project an image of modernity and moderation. But instead, the U.A.E. looked paranoid and punitive when on Monday it sentenced University of Minnesota graduate Shezanne Cassim to a year in prison for a satirical video about life in the U.A.E. that he posted on YouTube.
Cassim’s conviction was unnecessary in the first place. The video in question reportedly violated relatively new cybercrime laws and posed a threat to national security. But the mock-documentary style video, called the “Ultimate Combat System: The Deadly Satwa Gs,” was prefaced by a statement saying that, “The following events are fictional and no offense was intended to the people of Satwa and U.A.E.”
The video, intended to tweak wannabe thugs in a cushy district of Dubai, was just a “knucklehead video” satirizing young men acting tough, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told an editorial writer.
Klobuchar, as well as others in the Minnesota congressional delegation, have pushed for Cassim’s release. The State Department has, too. Both Klobuchar and Sen. Al Franken indicated that the U.S. ambassador has made this case his highest priority, and Klobuchar spoke directly to Secretary of State John Kerry about the matter. So this is not a case of U.S. officials failing to take action.
Rather this is about a nation that does not seem to understand that along with its bid for global importance comes some measure of freedom of expression as well as freedom from fear of heavy-handed tactics often seen from the region’s repressive regimes.
The U.A.E. seems to want the benefits of a close association with the West without the responsibilities. It has a close diplomatic and military relationship with the United States. It courts U.S. businesses and universities to set up operations there. It will host the twice-in-a-decade World Expo in 2020. The Rolling Stones, not known for limiting free expression, will perform in the U.A.E. in February. Given these dynamics, the conviction and sentencing of Cassim seems even more absurd.
Cassim, a Sri Lanken born U.S. citizen, should not have been persecuted. He should be immediately released on humanitarian grounds. He has already served eight months and has had six court hearings postponed or canceled, while his contact with friends and family has been limited. In addition, authorities allegedly forced him to sign Arabic-language documents he did not understand.
Given its global aspirations, the U.A.E. should realize that it will only do more damage to its international image if it continues to punish Cassim for doing nothing more than making a silly video.