Out of Dubai prison and home, Shezanne Cassim describes his ordeal

Shezanne Cassim arrives home
Shezanne Cassim, accompanied by his family, meets the media after he arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 in Minneapolis after being held in a maximum security prison since June since June in the United Arab Emirates for a parody video that was posted online.
Jim Mone/AP

A Twin Cities man arrived back home late Thursday after spending the better part of a year in a United Arab Emirates prison, complaining that he was convicted by a "textbook kangaroo court," but not mistreated while locked up.

Shezanne Cassim was arrested in April for posting a satirical video on YouTube about youth culture in Dubai. After family members and activists rallied to his plight, and intervention by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and the State Department, Emirati officials deported the 29-year-old man back to Minnesota.

Cassim said he and group of his friends, who were also arrested, had little access to information about the case while behind bars.

"I knew there was stuff going on in the media, but I didn't have access to actually what was going on," he said. "Even the prison guards had no idea. Whereas all this news taking place, and like my brother said, all I could hear was just crickets."

"The way the UAE legal system works, is they can detain you without charge indefinitely. We had no idea what our crime was. We had no idea how long we'd be in prison for," he said during a news conference at the Minneapolis St Paul International Airport. "We weren't actually told about what our crime was until about five months later, after we were taken in."

The 19 minute video, produced in English, is called "Ultimate Combat System: The Deadly Satwa Gs." It's set in a phony martial arts school in Dubai's Satwa district. There, Cassim's friend demonstrates an attack move that involves throwing a shoe, an insult in Arab culture.

Here's the video that caused all the problems.

To really enjoy the humor in Shezanne Cassim's YouTube video, posted in October of 2012, it probably helps if you're under 30 and you grew up in the suburbs of Dubai. It pokes fun at rich kids in Dubai who have an affinity for American hip-hop culture and gangsta rap. Dubai police did not find it so funny. Cassim was arrested in April. He and seven friends were convicted last month, sentenced to a year in prison, plus a fine and deportation. After U.S. intervention, he was given credit for time served and sent home to Minnesota.

"They wanted to send a message to the UAE public."

A state-run newspaper based in Abu Dhabi said Cassim and his friends were accused of defaming the country's image abroad. His supporters have said he was charged with endangering state security. Cassim himself declined to discuss the legal trouble his friends still face, but insists their satirical video broke no laws. After three years of populist backlash against Middle Eastern monarchies, Cassim says UAE leaders are scared of democracy.

"They wanted to send a message to the UAE public saying, 'Look what we do to people who do just a silly YouTube video.' So imagine if you do something that's actually critical of the government," he said.

Cassim is an American citizen. He was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in Woodbury and went to Woodbury High School, and moved to Dubai for a job after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2006.

Cassim joked that the best thing about his newfound freedom is being able to eat at Burger King again, and the only good thing to come of his ordeal is that he kicked his ice cream addiction. He credits steady media coverage for his release, and the intervention of Sen. Klobuchar.

The Minnesota Democrat says she was in close touch with both the U.S. ambassador to the UAE, and the Emirati ambassador to the United States during Cassim's ordeal, adding that his detention stands in sharp contrast to the image UAE leaders are trying to present of a westward-looking Arab nation open to American students and businesses.

"They need to look at their laws and look at the way they're enforcing them to really be talking the talk when it comes to progress and liberties," she said. "I really believe that this is an archaic way of looking at the world. Hopefully they will eventually be changing their laws and the way they enforce them and their justice system."

Klobuchar points out that the Rolling Stones are scheduled to play a concert in Abu Dhabi next month. And she says if Mick Jagger can get on a stage and sing, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," there's no reason a young man should be put in jail for a YouTube video.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.