Washington – Celebrity comedians are rallying behind efforts to free former Minnesota resident Shezanne “Shez” Cassim, who sits in an Abu Dhabi prison awaiting judgment for posting a parody video to YouTube.
Cassim could learn his fate as soon as Monday, when he is scheduled to face a judge and could be sentenced or released. If he is found guilty, Cassim, 29, could be imprisoned for an undetermined length of time and fined up to $272,000. Cassim has already had six such hearings postponed.
In the meantime, “Funny or Die,” a comedy website founded by comedian Will Ferrell and director Adam McKay, has released a video urging the United Arab Emirates to “Free Shez” instead of imprisoning him for doing something they do without reservation — try to make people laugh.
“We believe in freedom of speech and we’re trying to galvanize the comedy world in support of Shez,” said Patrick Starzan, Funny or Die’s vice president of marketing. “Comedy resonates to get messages across.”
Authorities in the United Arab Emirates have not been amused by Cassim’s mock documentary “The Ultimate Combat System: Deadly Satwa G’s.” Authorities have detained Cassim since April on the grounds that the mock documentary, uploaded to the Internet in October 2012, posed a threat to national security.
The case has flummoxed the U.S. State Department and Cassim’s family, who say the video lampoons youth culture in the Satwa district of Dubai, where some teenagers purport to be gangsters. The video begins with a statement explaining that it is fictional and the YouTube account Cassim used to post the video features a blooper reel from the shoot.
Funny or Die’s video features messages recorded by Ferrell, McKay Patton Oswalt, Chris Mintz-Plasse and other celebrities.
Power of social media
International media law experts and rights groups say the case lays bare the concerns Gulf nations have about the power of social media in the wake of the Arab Spring demonstrations and protests that began in 2010.
The United Arab Emirates is among countries in the region that have enacted cybercrimes laws and jailed people for content posted on YouTube and social networking sites. The microblogging service Twitter is referenced during Cassim’s video.
But the case over the spoof martial-arts video could prove troublesome for the United Arab Emirates at a time when the country is establishing itself as an international hub for culture and trade.
Last month, the Emirates landed the 2020 World Expo trade exhibition, marking the first time a Middle Eastern nation will host the event.
“Basically, Dubai, if you want to be viewed as an international destination, don’t put people in jail for making funny videos,” McKay said. “It’s one thing to have a bad sense of humor. It’s another thing to lock up people because of it.”
The Emirates’ embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
“Some people are probably looking at it and saying they shouldn’t have made this video because it poked fun at the country,” said Matt Duffy, an assistant professor of communication at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
Duffy taught at Zayed University’s Abu Dhabi campus for two years, until his visa was revoked in the summer of 2012. “Right now, the country’s not interested in having fun poked at it,” Duffy said.
Michael Corbin, the Abu Dhabi-based U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, has told U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar that Cassim’s case is his “highest priority.”
“We are continuing to engage with the UAE authorities on this and are troubled by [Cassim’s] prolonged incarceration,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters during a recent briefing. “We are encouraging them to move swiftly with a verdict and a judgment.”
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has been critical of the U.S. response to the jailing of Cassim, a Sri Lankan-born U.S. citizen.
Secretary of State John Kerry did not publicly discuss Cassim’s case during a visit to the Emirates in November.
“When it comes to certain countries, UAE is one of them, … they lose their voice on this kind of issue,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.
“When it comes to close allies … there’s just no appetite whatsoever for speaking out.”
The Cassim family immigrated to Dubai in the 1970s. Shezanne Cassim, 29, was born during a year the family spent back in their native Sri Lanka. He and his siblings were educated in British private schools in Dubai until 2000, when the family moved to Woodbury and became U.S. citizens.
Cassim graduated from Woodbury High School, then attended the University of Minnesota. He graduated from the U in 2006 and returned to Dubai to work as a business consultant. He started a job with PricewaterhouseCoopers in April, three weeks before police in Dubai jailed him. According to his family, Cassim was interrogated and forced by authorities to sign a document in Arabic that he did not understand.
The presiding judge in the case did not request an Arabic translation of Cassim’s video until late November.
The prosecution “certainly does seem to be really overstepping the boundaries of the law,” said Duffy, the communications professor and former Emirates resident.
Cassim’s brother, Shervon Cassim of Durham, N.C., said he is hopeful that a resolution will come Monday, “But we’re afraid that it’s just going to be postponed again.”
Corey Mitchell is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau. Twitter: @C_C_Mitchell