WASHINGTON – The U.S. State Department is closely monitoring the case of Shezanne “Shez” Cassim, a former Minnesota resident jailed in Abu Dhabi after making a video spoofing teen life in Dubai and uploading it to YouTube.
Officials from the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the U.S. Consulate General in Dubai have visited Cassim regularly at the Al-Wathba prison and attended all his court hearings, a department spokesperson said.
Staff members have also worked to ensure that 29-year-old Cassim, whose parents still live in Woodbury, has been treated humanely while in prison, the spokesperson said.
“The U.S. Embassy and Consulate General have engaged with [United Arab Emirates] counterparts to urge a fair and expedient trial and judgment,” the spokesperson said.
“Mr. Cassim was incarcerated for five months before he was notified of the charges against him. … The U.S. government supports the right of individuals and groups to express their political opinions peacefully around the world, including in the UAE.”
A Sri Lanka-born U.S. citizen, Cassim has lived and worked in Dubai since he graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2006. Cassim was arrested in April and charged with violating a cyber crimes law. After spending two months in jail in Dubai, he was transferred to a maximum-security prison in Abu Dhabi in June.
Cassim is accused of threatening national security and, according to the London-based Emirates Center for Human Rights, is the first foreign resident arrested under tougher measures governing Internet use in the United Arab Emirates.
Cassim has entered a not guilty plea in court. The Supreme Court judge in the case has repeatedly denied bail requests and postponed several hearings.
The next court date is scheduled for mid-December, U.S. officials said.
Cassim’s Dubai-based attorney declined to comment. Cassim faces a prison term and up to a $272,000 fine in the case, said Rori Donaghy, director of the Emirates Center for Human Rights.
“The charges against him are as ludicrous as they are harsh,” Donaghy said, “and all defendants should be immediately released because posting a playful video about youth culture in no way endangers anyone’s state security.”
The United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington, D.C., has not returned calls seeking comment on Cassim’s case. Officials there have deflected requests from members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation to release Cassim.
The 19-minute mock documentary, “Ultimate Combat System: The Deadly Satwa G’s,” was intended as a spoof on teenagers in Dubai who fashion themselves as thugs or gangsters. Cassim created and posted the video online in 2012.
The video shows combat training at the fictional “Satwa Combat School,” where students learn to throw sandals, strike opponents with a traditional head wrap and use cellphones and Twitter to summon help.
The YouTube account Cassim used to upload the video also features a blooper reel from the “Ultimate Combat System” shoot.
The case reflects a renewed crackdown on social media use in the region.
In its travel report for U.S. citizens visiting the United Arab Emirates, the State Department warns of arrests for information posted to YouTube and Twitter and cautions care about posts “that might be deemed to insult or challenge the local government.”
Several of the people featured in the film, including two Emirati citizens, have also been detained indefinitely.
Cassim’s father remains in Abu Dhabi, but contact between the two is limited, family members said. Before his arrest, Cassim worked as a business consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“I just want my son home for Christmas,” said Cassim’s mother, Jean Cassim, in a statement released to the Star Tribune. “He’s a good young man with a great career and has never been in trouble. Now he’s being held for no reason. I’ve been praying, going to mass and lighting candles, and that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell