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WHS grad gets one year in UAE prison for making parody video

A Woodbury High School graduate detained overseas in a maximum security prison for making a spoof video was sentenced Monday to one year in prison.

Shezanne “Shez” Cassim was charged with violating United Arab Emirates’ cyber-crimes laws and allegedly threatening national security after posting the YouTube video.

Cassim has been held in the Abu Dhabi prison since April and it is unclear whether the eight months already served will be credited toward his one-year sentence, his Minnesota attorney Susan Burns said.

“The hope always is that he’ll be released,” she said. “Any step of the way that could happen, but it hasn’t so far. The family is just deeply disappointed and outraged by the chain of events here.”

The first hearing was set for October and was delayed numerous times. Finally the judge ordered an Arabic translation of the video before issuing the verdict this week.

Two other Emirates arrested for their involvement in the video were sentenced to eight months in prison, according to Burns.

“I am not sure what to make of that,” she said. “We’re seeking clarification from the people in country to see why the difference.”

Cassim, a 29-year-old University of Minnesota alumnus and 2002 WHS grad, was working as a business consultant in the UAE at the time he posted the video in October 2012.

He made the video to poke fun at the district of Al Satwa, a community comprised of shops, restaurants and private residential housing.

The mockumentary featured a makeshift martial arts school that uses shoes and social media as weapons and back-up systems.

Cassim’s family has been working with United States and human rights officials to call on the UAE to release him and speed up court proceedings.

The case grabbed the attention of many comedians like Will Ferrell of the website Funny or Die, which helped generate thousands of signatures in an online petition advocating for Cassim’s release.

As of Monday, the 20-minute video received 190,736 views on YouTube.

Burns said the whole ordeal could’ve been avoided when Cassim offered to take down the video at the time he was initially questioned in April.

“None of this had to happen if they had simply accepted his offer to take the video down,” she said. “This is an epic travesty in my opinion because this is clearly a comedy and a parody video.”

Along with hundreds of others in the Twitterverse using the hashtag “#freeshez” to express their views on Cassim’s detention, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum joined in on Monday.

“UAE must end this outrageous abuse and release Shez now,” she wrote.

As they wait for the official written verdict, Burns and the Cassim family say they’re still confused by how the video violates UAE laws.

“The best way that they could’ve ended this horrific nightmare would be to release Shez today to make sure he’d be home for Christmas,” Burns said. “That was my hope and that was the family’s hope. They chose not to do that for whatever reason.”

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.