A Woodbury, Minn., native and University of Minnesota graduate is fighting for his freedom after being sentenced over a parody video that led to his arrest in the United Arab Emirates, and he's got some big names backing him up.
The video, which can still be seen on YouTube, pokes fun of young men in Dubai's upscale suburb of Satwa, who aren't nearly as tough as they'd like to believe. It begins with a disclaimer clearly stating no offense was intended, and it's been viewed nearly 250,000 times.
Ironically, when Woodbury, Minn., native Shez Cassim was first questioned about the video, he offered to take it down. At the time, it only had 200 hits. Prosecutors, however, said no.
It's often said there's a fine line between clever and stupid, but it seems there's an even finer line between clever and criminal. Cassim, one of eight filmmakers and participants in the video, was living in Dubai and working for Price Waterhouse Cooper when he was arrested in April and interrogated.
"Prosecutors accused them of affecting the national security of the state," Shervon Cassim, the filmmaker's brother, told Fox 9 News.
Since then, the Woodbury native's family has been trying to find out why. They also teamed up with Sen. Amy Klobuchar to help free their loved one, but the process has been slow and answers have been few. In fact, Cassim spent five months behind bars before he was charged with being a threat to national security for violating unspecified cyber crimes.
"Anyone who watches his video, and I encourage people to do it -- it's in English, would see that this is not a harmful video," Klobuchar contested.
Klobuchar has been working with the U.S. State Department for months, and described the sentence as "shockingly long" since the tongue-in-cheek video does not poke fun at religion -- or even the country's leadership.
"They have branch offices for Facebook and Google, and yet they will not tolerate a video being posted on YouTube," Klobuchar said.
Shez Cassim's arrest has drawn national attention, and the response has included a video appeal by Will Ferrell and numerous comedians on the website Funny or Die that calls for officials to #FreeShez.
"You gotta free Shez," Patton Oswald urged. "You gotta free him."
On Monday, the 29-year-old was sentenced to a year in prison, but his attorney in the U.S. is still waiting on for the official verdict form to spell out the details.
"He's been in prison for a comedy video," attorney Susan Burns said. "It's tough. He's going stir-crazy being in that jail cell."
In the best-case scenario, he'll be deported. In the worst scenario, he'll be forced to serve the entire sentence on top of the 8 months he's already spent in a maximum security prison in Abu Dhabi. Currently, his attorneys are hoping he'll be credited with the 8 months he's already served. Since his sentence does include deportation, U.S. diplomats hope the date will be moved up.
"It is a crazy situation, and I really -- my heart's with their family," Klobuchar said. "We need to get this kid home."
Shez Cassim was also fined $2,700, and the eight others who helped make the video were also convicted. One from the United Arab Emirates was pardoned, but two co-defendants received similar sentences while others were sentenced to less time. That has U.S. diplomats hoping authorities may release Shez Cassim earlier.
FULL STATEMENT FROM AMY KLOBUCHAR:
"Keeping a young man in jail for a year for simply posting a video that meant no harm is outrageous, especially given the fact that the defendants from the United Arab Emirates appeared to get lighter sentences. The UAE holds itself out to be among the most tolerant and just nations in the region, but this sentence is unjust and unreasonable. I will continue to work with State Department and UAE officials as well as Shezanne's family to make sure we get him home as soon as possible."