Human rights advocates at the University of Minnesota are calling officials in the United Arab Emirates to release of U of M graduate imprisoned there for posting a YouTube video.
Authorities detained Shezanne Cassim, of Woodbury, eight months ago, saying he violated a cybercrimes law.
The video that put Shez Cassim in trouble with the United Arab Emirates is a 20-minute mock documentary about a fictitious martial art. It focuses on the leader of what it calls Satwa fighting.
"Dubai. This young city is a blooming hub for trade, transportation and finance," Cassim says in the video, as dramatic music plays underneath. "But despite its youth, you'd be surprised to find out that within the shadows of its glitzy skyscrapers, Dubai gave birth to an ancient and highly effective martial art."
In the video, the leader demonstrates how sandals can be used as weapons -- and throws one through a newspaper. He then reveals what he describes as the most dangerous weapon of all: social media.
"We are using the Twitter. The Twitter is very important, this is new technology. For example if I have a problem I write: Please come, I need backup at Beach Center hashtag Save Saloom Snake. And then I write please retweet, so all the satwa combat people come at the same time."
Members of Cassim's family, who have been urging his release, have been able to visit him every couple of weeks. But they say he hasn't been told what specific part of the nation's cybercrimes law he violated, and hasn't been given a chance to meet privately with an attorney.
Barbara Frey, who directs the human rights program at the University of Minnesota, calls the video harmless.
"This is a video that any of us or any of our students might have posted to YouTube to be seen and laughed at, to be seen an understood as a joke," she said.
Frey said advocates decided to mark the anniversary of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights by calling for Cassim's release. She cites part of the declaration that she said the United Arab Emirates has violated:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and this right includes freedom to impart information through any media and regardless of frontiers."
Cassim is smart and popular with a great sense of humor, said his brother, Shervon Cassim.
"He's got a very sharp and active mind, and one of our biggest fears is he's just locked up in this cell with no way to pass the time," he said. "He's been in detention for eight months. And he's going stir crazy."
The fact that Cassim was imprisoned for a satirical video has struck a nerve with other amateur comedians.
Funny or Die, a comedy company founded in part by actor Will Farrell, today posted information about Cassim's situation to its website and social media channels, which have a following of 12 million.
"Everyone we've spoken to has just been kind of blown away by this story," Funny or Die marketing director Patrick Starzan said.
"It looked like any video any one of us would upload to Funny or Die just because we had a concept or an idea and we're trying to have a little fun with a concept or a group of people," he said. "There's no harm in that video whatsoever."
Shez Cassim's next court date is Dec. 16, when a judge is supposed to issue a verdict and sentence. However, that hearing has been rescheduled five times.
His supporters say they hope putting public pressure on authorities in the United Arab Emirates will help resolve the case as soon as possible.