January 8th, 2014
09:46 AM ET

UAE to Free American Jailed Over Video, Family Says

An American imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates after posting a video that parodied Dubai teens will be released this week, a family spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Shezanne Cassim plans to fly back to the United States on Thursday, family spokeswoman Jennifer Gore said. There was no immediate response to the family's announcement from the UAE government, which has not replied to previous requests for comment on Cassim's case.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday that after getting credit against his one-year sentence for time served and "for good behavior," Cassim was moved to a deportation facility for processing.

"We understand processing will take a few days, at which point he will be returning to the United States," Psaki said, adding that U.S. diplomats have visited Cassim regularly in custody and should do so again Wednesday.

Cassim, 29, of Woodbury, Minnesota, moved to Dubai in 2006 after graduating from college to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers. His family says the 29-year-old was arrested in April after uploading a 19-minute video that pokes fun at a clique of Dubai teens influenced by hip-hop culture.

In December, he was sentenced to a year in prison and a fine of about $2,700. The charges were not read in court, but the country's main English-language newspaper reported that Cassim was accused of defaming the UAE's image abroad.

UAE officials would say only that Cassim "was charged under the UAE's penal code" and was "entitled to the fair trial protections contained in the UAE's constitution."

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

Cassim's family said they weren't notified of the charges against him for five months.

"He tries to put on a brave face," his brother, Shervon Cassim, said in December. "He said that he was doing fine, not to worry about him, but I could just sense that he's a little depressed. My impression is that he's going just a little bit crazy in his cell."

Shervon Cassim said his brother made the video "just for fun."

"He's a big fan of 'SNL,' 'Funny or Die,' all those shows, and he and his friends just wanted to make a funny sketch comedy in their spare time," Shervon Cassim said. "There was no indication in local law that making a comedy video, making fun of teenagers in the suburbs, was a threat to the UAE's national security."

The online comedy community Funny or Die, in fact, rallied to Cassim's support, launching a #FreeShez campaign to correspond with U.N. Human Rights Day on December 10.

Cassim ended up serving nine months - more than half of those before being charged - before his recent move to a deportation facility, his family said in a statement. The family said it reached out to U.S. Secretary of State John

Kerry before his Mideast trip last week, with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar also pushing for his release.

"The disregard for freedom of expression, the arbitrary application of this cybercrime law, the constant delays revealed the UAE legal system as archaic and unfair by modern standards," said Susan Burns, the family's U.S.-based lawyer. "However, we are relieved that the UAE finally realized that Shezanne deserved to be released."

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