Shezanne Cassim, 29, from Minnesota was arrested in April for his part in the video “Satwa Combat Schoo” because the United Arab Emirates said it violated federal cyber crime laws and posed a threat to national security.
Cassim graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2006 and moved to Dubai to work as a consultant, which is a major finance hub in the Middle East. The 19-minute video was posted to YouTube in October 2012 and was meant to spoof the youth culture in Dubai who call themselves “gangstas” when they in fact engage in mild behavior. He provided a disclaimer that said it is fictional and they did not intend to offend anyone.
Cassim’s mock documentary profiles the fictional “Satwa Combat School,” where students learn to throw sandals as weapons, strike opponents with pieces of belt-like fabric and use cellphones and Twitter to request backup if they are threatened.
In the video, the instructor tells Cassim that rappers Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur are personal friends and notes former Al Satwa residents who “moved to California for the education.”
At the end of the video, master students are presented not with a black belt, but with replica jerseys of Argentine soccer player Lionel Messi.
Dubai authorities arrested Cassim and revoked his passport in April. In June, he was transferred to the maximum security Al-Wathba Prison in Dubai along with others who appeared in the video. Two of them are Emirati citizens. The UAE passed tougher laws to govern the internet and his attorney Susan Burns said the laws he allegedly broke included penalties for challenging authorities.
“To be incarcerated over something that’s clearly a joke, clearly meant in jest, clearly meant in good humour and held for seven months is a violation of human rights,” Ms Burns said.
“It’s tragic. It’s something that can happen to anybody, especially young people who post all the time on YouTube.”
He is the first foreigner arrested under tougher measures governing internet use in the United Arab Emirates, according to the London-based Emirates Centre for Human Rights.
The law 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.
Burns did say the video was released a month before the laws were enacted and his penalties could include prison and a $250,000 fine. Cassim pleaded not guilty. His family was told a verdict would be reached on October 25, but the judge postponed it five times because he wants an Arabic translation of the video and denied bail three times. Even though he was imprisoned in April, Burns said the judge just recently requested the Arabic translation. His father, Sanath Cassim, moved to the region in the summer to work on his son’s release.