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Woodbury Man Home after 9 Months in UAE Prison: 'They're Scared of Democracy'

Updated: 01/10/2014 7:42 AM
Created: 01/09/2014 8:51 AM KSTP.com
By: Leslie Dyste

A Minnesota man who was arrested in the United Arab Emirates for a parody video that was posted online has been released from prison and arrived in Minnesota Thursday.
    
As a news conference began, 29-year-old Shezanne Cassim of Woodbury said light heartedly, "(It) feels great, I have access to Burger King again, so that's like a big plus for me."

Cassim was in custody in the UAE for nine months in connection with the video, which satirized youth culture in Dubai. He was arrested in April and had been held at a maximum security prison in Abu Dhabi since June.

At the news conference, Cassim said he was not abused while in prison. He added with no television or music it felt like he was in a cage for nine months.

Cassim made it clear he does not believe he broke the law. He said there was nothing illegal about the video. He went on to say he wasn't told what the crime was until about five months after he was taken into prison.

Susan Burns, the family's attorney in the U.S., said prison officials escorted Cassim to an airport Wednesday, where he was reunited with his father and put on an airplane.
 
"You can imagine the torture they've been under for nine months, not knowing if they were going to see him, when they were going to see him," Burns said. "There's been a lot of anxiety ... mostly due to the arbitrary procedures over there and the lack of transparency.
    
The UAE-owned daily newspaper, The National, has said Cassim and his co-defendants were accused of defaming the country's image abroad. Cassim's supporters said he was charged with endangering state security under a 2012 cybercrimes law that tightened penalties for challenging authorities.
    
He and seven others were convicted in December. Cassim was sentenced to one year in prison, a fine and deportation. The U.S. State Department said he got credit for time served and was given time off for good behavior.
    
Cassim, a U.S. citizen, was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Dubai for work after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2006. He became the public face of the defendants after his family launched an effort to publicize his months-long incarceration.
    
Authorities in the Middle East have been cracking down on social media use over the past two years, with dozens of people arrested across the region for Twitter posts deemed offensive to leaders or for social media campaigns urging more political openness.

Cassim said due to the political situation in UAE, "they're scared of democracy... it was a warning message, we were scapegoats." Cassim believes they were warning the UAE public about what they can do to people who make a "silly" YouTube video.
    
Cassim's documentary-style video, titled "Ultimate Combat System: The Deadly Satwa Gs," is set in the Satwa district of Dubai. It opens with text saying the video is fictional and is not intended to offend.
    
The video pokes fun at Dubai youth who style themselves like "gangstas" and shows fictional "combat" training that includes throwing a sandal and using a mobile phone to call for help.

KSTP spoke with Cassim's friend Justin Buck about the incident. See the full interview here.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
 


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