Washington – A Minnesota man jailed in the United Arab Emirates for posting a comedy video to YouTube will return home this week, less than a month after a judge sentenced him to a year in prison.
U.S. State Department officials confirmed Monday that authorities in the Persian Gulf nation expect to release Shezanne “Shez” Cassim from a high-security prison within days.
Cassim has been imprisoned since April, for airing a 19-minute mock documentary that spoofed would-be teenage gangsters in Dubai.
The Sri-Lankan born U.S. citizen from Woodbury, who moved to Dubai for work after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2006, could return home as soon as Thursday.
“We understand that Mr. Cassim will be released in the next few days,” State Department press officer Pooja Jhunjhunwala said. “We continue to work closely with the U.A.E. authorities to ensure his quick release.”
American consular staffers plan to visit Cassim once more before he leaves the country, Jhunjhunwala said.
‘A great relief’
Cassim’s impending release will mark the final chapter in a nine-month ordeal that baffled international observers and left the 29-year-old in a desert prison for months with little legal recourse.
It started when Cassim, along with several friends, shot and uploaded a comic video titled “Ultimate Combat System: Deadly Satwa G’s” in October 2012.
The video began with a statement informing viewers that it was fictional. The YouTube account Cassim used to post the video also included a blooper reel from the shoot.
A month later, officials in the emirates passed a law on cybercrime-related threats to national security.
According to his family and State Department officials, Cassim received a call in April to show up at the local police department, where he was interrogated, forced to sign documents and jailed in Dubai.
State security forces in June transferred Cassim, who had no previous record, to a high-security prison in Abu Dhabi, along with several of his co-defendants.
During that time, Cassim’s family said that at least six court dates were postponed.
Cassim finally appeared before a judge on Dec. 22. The judge ruled that Cassim had violated the cybercrimes law that was passed after his film went public. Cassim was sentenced to one year in prison, immediate deportation upon release and a $2,725 fine.
U.S. officials have been working for Cassim’s release. He has been given credit for time served and will be deported after he is released from prison.
“It is of great relief for the Cassim family that Shezanne can return home, but until authorities change the cybercrimes law it is simply a matter of time before another story of injustice emerges from the U.A.E.,” said Rori Donaghy, director of the London-based Emirates Center for Human Rights.
Cassim’s family, which still lives in Woodbury, declined to comment on the impending release, preferring to wait until he is on U.S. soil. Cassim, his parents and siblings spent much of his youth in Dubai before moving to Minnesota in the early 2000s.
State Department staff members followed Cassim’s case closely, and Michael Corbin, the U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, pledged to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar that he would make the case his “highest priority.”
Staff at the U.S. Embassy of the United Arab Emirates did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Cassim worked as a business consultant in the country and began a job with PricewaterhouseCoopers just weeks before he was jailed.
Klobuchar, U.S. Sen. Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum expressed relief at Cassim’s release.
The three had lobbied State Department officials behind the scenes, trying to secure Cassim’s freedom before his family, weary of navigating diplomatic channels, went public with the case.
Klobuchar pressed Secretary of State John Kerry, her former Senate colleague, to help.
Authorities previously released two Emiratis and deported an Indian citizen who were jailed with Cassim.
“Jailing this young man for months for posting a harmless video made absolutely no sense, especially in a country that prides itself on being a tolerant and just nation,” Klobuchar said. “Shezanne’s family never gave up on this fight, and having their son home safe is the best start to 2014 I can imagine.”
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell