'Inside joke' got no laughs from UAE government
WOODBURY, Minn. -- The United Arab Emirates was portrayed as a tourist destination for years until it received negative attention as a “fake Disney Land” type of country that has no culture or diversity, Shezanne Cassim said of the place he grew up in.
So he decided, why not make a few funny videos to inject some sense of humor, celebrate the local arts scene and make people laugh a little?
“It was never intended to be for a global audience,” Cassim said of his now-controversial video that UAE officials used to justify his imprisonment. “It was an inside joke for the people in the city who are familiar with this kind of content.”
In an interview, Cassim maintained his innocence and said the YouTube spoof “Ultimate Combat System: Deadly Satwa Gs” was not what landed him in the deserted prison outside Abu Dhabi.
Rather, it’s the arbitrary UAE “cyber-crimes” laws that were behind the Woodbury High School graduate’s imprisonment.
“I didn’t just go there messing around not knowing what I was doing,” Cassim said. “This is not a case about me not respecting local laws.”
The 19-minute video pokes fun at the teenage hip-hop culture in Dubai and takes place at a makeshift martial arts school that teaches fighting with shoes and uses social media as a backup tool to fight gangs.
“The content itself was not original,” he said.
Cassim was sentenced to a year in jail and was released this month after receiving credit for time served. Efforts by the State Department and U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken contributed to his early release and deportation back to his Woodbury home.
Living in Dubai
Cassim is a Sri Lanka native who grew up in Dubai. He went to school there, had many friends there and was familiar with the country and its political culture.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2006, he decided to go back and work for a local airline company.
Last April, he received a call to go down to the Dubai police headquarters and answer a few questions about a video he had posted on YouTube.
Cassim said he had no idea why he was under arrest or what potential charges he faced. But what he did notice was the way investigators questioned him about the video – they accused him of working with others for some sort of compensation, he said.
“They kind of thought it was a conspiracy,” he said. “Really it was just me and a bunch of friends.”
When police asked about the video, Cassim said he offered to take it down but they mocked him and weren’t convinced that an American company like YouTube would allow that, he said.
The video hadn’t received that many hits until Cassim’s case garnered worldwide social media attention. It stayed up during his entire imprisonment and has now been viewed more than 450,000 times.
“It just shows how insignificant the video was,” Cassim said. “It was not a damage to national security.”
What he thought was going to be a quick stay in jail turned into a nearly yearlong ordeal in an overcrowded, overheated cell.
Cassim had limited contact with relatives and his lawyer. Even when he did, it was brief, 10-minute visits through glass screens with guards present, he said.
National security threat?
After two months in a Dubai jail, Cassim and four friends who were also arrested for their involvement in the video were transferred to the desert, where the maximum security prison was located in Abu Dhabi.
At that point, he learned the video was classified as a national security threat.
“We knew it was something to do with national security but beyond that I don’t know,” Cassim said.
Cassim felt “very isolated” in the prison, he said, and had zero access to what was happening in the outside world.
He was living in 100-degree temperatures without air conditioning, flushing toilets or tables and chairs.
“You eat outside in the heat,” he said. “I used to get the sense that I was burning up every night.”
Though he wasn’t physically abused in prison, he said he was emotionally distressed.
“Generally we were not physically mistreated,” he said. “We were just shouted at like dogs.”
Cassim went to court nine times for various hearings, oftentimes not even understanding what was happening due to language barriers. His frustration levels grew.
“It goes back to the whole injustice,” he said. “I’m in there for nine months not knowing why or how long.”
Though he was sentenced to one year in prison in December, Cassim said he was relieved to at least get a sentence. It provided him with some closure.
Thankful for support
Cassim didn’t realize how much international attention his case had attracted until he got out of prison. He saw the level of support on social media and in an online petition that garnered thousands of signatures calling for his release.
Cassim’s deportation bans him from ever going back to Dubai, but he said he believes in the city and wants to help the country improve its legal system despite what he went through.
“I had a great childhood there,” he said. “The reason I made that video was to celebrate those childhood memories.”
Cassim is considering film school and plans to make more videos and possibly a documentary about his experience.
“Imprisonment was not good,” he said. “But I remember how much fun I had making the video.”