UAE frees American jailed over YouTube satire

An American imprisoned for poking fun at the wanna-be gangsta culture in Dubai has finally been freed after nine months in prison for violating the United Arab Emirates’ cybercrimes law. Shezanne Cassim may arrive back his native Twin Cities as early as today:

Shezanne Cassim, 29, was jailed by a State Security Court on Dec. 23 under an article of the federal cybercrimes law, which provides for jail and fines for anyone who uses information technology to publish caricatures that are “liable to endanger state security and its higher interests or infringe on public order.” At the time of the sentencing, Mr. Cassim, who is from Woodbury, Minn., had already been in detention since April.

On Tuesday, a representative for his family, Jennifer P. Gore, said in a statement that customary practice in the United Arab Emirates equates nine months imprisonment to a one-year sentence, so Mr. Cassim was already being processed for deportation based on time served and was expected home this week.

“I can’t tell you how relieved our family is by this turn of events,” Mr. Cassim’s brother, Shervon Cassim, said in a statement. “We are very excited, and we are grateful to everyone who worked to free Shez.”

The local KSTP channel said in a report that he could be arriving at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Thursday morning.

The cybercrime law was just a cover for the arbitrary punishment for Cassim’s gentle satirical jab. Nothing in the video criticizes the governments of Dubai or the UAE, or of Islam and its laws, which UAE applies to foreigners as well as its subjects. CNN reports that none of the men jailed for the video can quite figure out why they ended up in prison, and everyone else has been left wondering just what they can and cannot do in the UAE without running afoul of the capricious rulers.

In case you missed it in my first post on Cassim, here’s the satire that was so dangerous it sent several men to prison for nine months:

As comedy, it’s got good production values but doesn’t sustain itself over its longish run time. It would have worked better as a series of short skits rather than one 20-minute mockumentary. The late Chris Farley did this much better in Beverly Hills Ninja. On the other hand, it beats For Your Consideration by a mile.

It’s easy to joke about this, but it’s no joke to Cassim and his family. It’s outrageous of Dubai to have locked up Cassim for even a day, let alone for eight months — and adding another year in maximum security is absurd. Dubai and UAE want to position themselves as a modern, cosmopolitan oasis in the Middle East, but this suggests that they’re just another oppressive totalitarian state with enough money to buy good PR. The US should have demanded his release months ago, and his continued incarceration should be a high-profile story for anyone who cares about even rudimentary freedoms, such as the freedom to laugh.

I’m happy to see Cassim released and hopefully arriving back in town soon. But this should serve as a warning that shiny buildings and free-flowing cash does not necessarily equate modernity and liberty.

Jazz Shaw Dec 01, 2021 11:01 AM ET