A fast-food burger may be the epitome of freedom for Shezanne “Shez” Cassim, who landed in Minnesota on Thursday after spending nine months in a high-security prison in the United Arab Emirates for uploading a parody video on YouTube.
“I have access to Burger King again,” he said after stepping in front of reporters, cameras and microphones when he arrived Thursday afternoon at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. “So that’s a big plus for me.”
The international ordeal began when Cassim, a Sri-Lankan-born U.S. citizen from Woodbury who was living and working in Dubai, was brought in by police for questioning in April and immediately jailed. By June, he was locked in the Abu Dhabi prison.
At issue was a 19-minute mock documentary Cassim filmed and uploaded to YouTube, lampooning would-be teenage gangsters in Dubai. The parody began with a statement saying it was fictional. But Emirati officials said the video violated newly established federal cybercrimes laws and posed a threat to national security. They jailed Cassim and several friends featured in the video.
“The way [the United Arab Emirates] system works, they can detain you without charges indefinitely. We had no idea what our crime was,” said the now shaggy-haired Cassim. “We had no idea how long we would be in prison for. We weren’t actually told what our crime was until about five months later, after we were taken in. Even then we heard rumors of the charges and they kept on changing.”
In December, an Emirates judge sentenced Cassim to a year in prison despite months of work behind the scenes by U.S. officials as well as international outrage by human rights groups and famous comedians. But word came on Monday that he was being released when authorities granted him credit for time served and good behavior. He began his journey home Wednesday with his father, who had been in the Emirates for several months.
Speaking briefly to reporters at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Cassim said he was tried in a “textbook kangaroo court and convicted without any evidence.”
“They were indifferent and callous the way they approached our trial,” Cassim said. “We actually went to court nine times before they even gave us a verdict. After about four sessions, we found out the judge hadn’t even watched the video.
“I think there’s a misconception that I broke a law,” he said. “But I want to say I did nothing wrong. There was nothing illegal about the video even under [Emirates] law. … To me, this verdict is meaningless.”
It merely served as a warning, Cassim said. “My opinion is that due to the political situation there, they’re scared of democracy. They wanted to send a message to the [U.A.E.] public: ‘Look at what we would do to people who post a silly YouTube video.’ So imagine if you do something that’s actually critical of the government. It’s a warning message and we’re scapegoats.”
The only positive thing, Cassim said tongue-in-cheek, is that the Dubai police “helped break my ice cream addiction.”
Cassim said he wasn’t abused physically while in prison. “But in terms of prison facilities, there was nothing,” he said. “We were pretty much in a cage for nine months. No TV. No nothing. No music.”
And he had limited information. “Even the prison guards had no idea,” he said.
Cassim’s family contacted U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in April and she worked with State Department officials, met with the U.S. Ambassador to the U.A.E. and worked directly with the Emirates Ambassador to the United States to advocate for Cassim’s return. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., also joined the push.
Cassim thanked his family, Minnesota’s congressional delegation and the media for helping to free him.
He answered only a few questions on Thursday, saying he would say more later. “I have a lot of stories to report on stuff that I seen there and stuff I went through that we need to talk about.” But first he wanted to enjoy his reunion with family and friends.
Cassim, who worked as a business consultant in Dubai after getting his degree in 2006 from the University of Minnesota, graduated from Woodbury High School in 2002. He spent much of his youth in Dubai before his family moved to Minnesota in 2000 and became U.S. citizens.
As to whether he will go back to Dubai someday, Cassim answered without hesitation.
“No, I won’t.”