It was intended as a piece of comedy, but it’s turned into a drama.
A young American living in the United Arab Emirates has been imprisoned since April, his family says, for posting what was intended to be a funny video on the Internet.
Now, the family of Shezanne “Shez” Cassim wants to bring attention to his case ahead of a hearing December 16.
The video in question is a 19-minute short that pokes fun at a clique of Dubai teens who are influenced by hip-hop culture. In the 1990s, the label “Satwa G” was coined for a group of suburban teens who were known to talk tougher than they really were.
The video depicts a look at a “combat school” in the suburb of Satwa, where these “gangsters” are trained. The training includes how to throw sandals at targets, using clothing accessories as whips, and how to call on the phone for backup.
“It’s like someone in the U.S. making a parody video of a Brooklyn hipster and getting thrown in jail for it and being held in jail for months without bail,” Cassim’s brother, Shervon Cassim, said. “That’s what’s going on here.”
Cassim’s family says Shez, 29, has been charged with endangering national security, but they’ve not been told what about the video endangered security.
UAE authorities did not respond to CNN requests for details about what charges Cassim may be facing and why.
“It’s just a straightforward silly comedy video. And he’s being treated like some sort of dangerous criminal, high security criminal that they need to keep under maximum security conditions,” Shervon Cassim said about his brother.
“And in all this time, they have refused to grant bail, with no explanation given,” Shervon Cassim said. His brother’s next court date is December 16.
Shez Cassim has lost a lot of weight, but is otherwise in good physical condition, his brother told CNN.
Shezanne Cassim, a consultant, moved to Dubai in 2006 after graduating college to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Shezanne Cassim is the first foreign national to be charged under a 2012 cybercrimes law, says the Emirates Centre for Human Rights. Mike Davies, director of global public relations for PwC, said the company was looking into the matter.
He and some friends made and posted the video online in 2012. He was arrested in April 2013.
According to the family, Cassim and eight friends have been charged under a cybercrimes law for endangering public order. This law, the family says, wasn’t passed until after the video had been released.
Two attempts by Cassim’s lawyers to get him released on bail have been rejected.
The U.S. State Department is providing consular services to Cassim, a department official said, and has attended all his court hearings.
“The U.S. Embassy and Consulate General have engaged with UAE counterparts to urge a fair and expedient trial and judgment,” the official said.
The Satwa G’s, the family said in a statement, were known as wanna-be gangsters, and that’s how Cassim portrayed them.
“These ‘gangstas’ were known for their decidedly mild behavior and were seen as the total opposite of actual criminals,” the statement said. “The fictional training depicted in the video teaches techniques that include the best way to throw a sandal at a newspaper (target) and, ultimately, how to use the mobile phone when in trouble.”
At the last hearing, the judge in the case asked for an Arabic translation of the video, giving the family some hope that the authorities will realize that it was a parody.
“I just want my son home for Christmas,” said Cassim’s mother, Jean Cassim, in a statement. “He’s a good young man with a great career and has never been in trouble. Now he’s being held for no reason. I’ve been praying, going to mass and lighting candles, and that’s what I’m going to keep doing.”
Shervon Cassim, who spent two months in Dubai trying to help his brother, said the family wants authorities there to “realise that this is not worth their time and just release him.”
“At a time when the United Arab Emirates is holding itself out as a modern country, it is sadly ironic and a poor image to present to the world that it continues to imprison my brother for uploading a silly video,” he said.
The case reflects a wider crackdown by Gulf Arab authorities on social media use. In the past two years, dozens of people have been arrested for Twitter posts deemed offensive to leaders or for social media campaigns urging more political openness.
The director of the Emirates Centre for Human Rights, Rori Donaghy, said the charges against Shezanne Cassim had “worrying implications”.
“Expatriates will be concerned that if they make a joke about life in Dubai that they could end up in prison like Cassim,” he said.
“Cassim has been thrown in prison for posting a silly video on YouTube and authorities must immediately release him as he has clearly not endangered state security in any way.”
The Emirates Centre for Human Rights said the case “raised a number of concerns about free expression in the United Arab Emirates”, including the fact that a law passed in November 2012 was being used retrospectively.
Sources: CNN, BBC, AP