Shezanne Cassim, American detained in UAE over parody video, speaks out

CNN
Wednesday, January 15, 2014 - 10:30am

Shezanne Cassim has a renewed appreciation for freedom after spending nine months behind bars in the United Arab Emirates.

The 29-year-old from Minnesota had been working as a business consultant in opulent Dubai before authorities arrested him and four friends in April over a parody video about wannabe gangsters.

"It was just great to see my family relieved," Cassim, who was released last week, told CNN's "New Day" on Wednesday about his first day home in the United States. "(I) went home and we just talked. Didn't do anything special, but that was (what was) special about it. It was nice to sleep on a real bed and just enjoy (the basic comforts) that we all take for granted."

Cassim's video depicts a "combat school" in the Dubai district of Satwa, where the "gangsters" are trained. The training includes how to throw sandals at targets, use clothing accessories as whips and call on the phone for backup.

The beginning of the video clearly explains that it's fictional.

But without warning, Cassim said, he was interrogated and arrested in Dubai before being transferred to a maximum-security prison in Abu Dhabi.

Last month, UAE authorities sentenced Cassim and two of his friends to one year in prison for defaming the country's image.

For months, Cassim said, he and others detained in the case didn't know why they were behind bars.

"We had no idea of what our crime was. We had no idea how long we'd be in prison for. We weren't actually told what our crime was until five months later, after we were taken in," he said. "Even then, we heard rumors of the charges, and they kept on changing."

UAE authorities said the video violated newly enacted cybercrime laws and posed a threat to national security.

Back home, family members never stopped fighting for his freedom. They said "Shez" simply made a 19-minute video that pokes fun at a clique of Dubai teens influenced by hip-hop culture.

"My eldest-brother instincts kicked in, and it was a feeling of ... do everything we can to get him out," Cassim's brother, Shervon Cassim, said on "New Day" on Wednesday.

As word of the ordeal spread, even lawmakers and celebrities took up his cause. Comedian Will Ferrell posted a video asking for his release.

Authorities released Cassim early for time served and for good behavior. He arrived home in Minnesota last Thursday.

In his interview Wednesday on "New Day," he said he had no idea how much attention his situation had gotten until he returned.

"I knew that my family had gone to the media, but I wasn't really sure how widespread it was," he said.

Shortly after his return, he said he had done nothing wrong, saying he had been "tried in a textbook kangaroo court" and convicted without evidence.

On Wednesday, Cassim said he agreed -- up to a point -- with comments that UAE Prime Minister Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum made to the BBC, saying his detention was a mistake.

"To a limited extent, I do agree with him it was a mistake, but really I think it was more (than a mistake). Nine months in prison is not just a mistake," Cassim said.

Cassim said he believes the reason for his detention was clear.

"Due to the political situation there, they're scared of democracy. They wanted to send a message to the UAE public, saying, 'Look what we'll do to people who do just a silly YouTube video, so imagine if you do something that's actually critical of the government.' It's a warning message, and we're scapegoats," he said.

Cassim's brother said the family hasn't yet decided whether to take legal action against the UAE.

"All options are on the table," Shervon Cassim said. "We have a great attorney, so all options are on the table."

When asked if he would ever go back to Dubai, Cassim -- who moved to Dubai after college in 2006 to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers -- said Wednesday that he's "still thinking about that."

"I do care about the city, and I believe it can be better," he said.

-- CNN's Sara Sidner and Jason Hanna contributed to this report.

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