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U.S. man in hot water in Dubai over parody video

By Shawn Nottingham and Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 10:26 AM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An American citizen is imprisoned in UAE
  • His family says he's facing charges for a parody video he made
  • Shez Cassim has been unable to be released on bail
  • His next hearing is December 16

(CNN) -- 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.

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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, told CNN affiliate KARE. "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 told KARE about his brother.

Shez Cassim has lost a lot of weight, but is otherwise in good physical condition, his brother told CNN.

Cassim, from Woodbury, Minnesota, moved to Dubai in 2006 after graduating college to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

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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."

An average of about 2,500 Americans are jailed abroad every year, and about a third of those arrests are related to illegal drugs, the U.S. State Department says. "In 2010 alone, consular officers conducted more than 9,500 prison visits, and assisted more than 3,500 Americans who were arrested abroad," the State Department's website says.

Advice for U.S. citizens traveling abroad

U.S. travelers in foreign countries are subject to the laws of those countries, and there's a limit to how much help they can get from the U.S. Embassy or Consulate there.

U.S. diplomatic corps officials "cannot represent you in legal proceedings or pay your legal fees or other expenses. But they can perform many vital services such as providing a list of attorneys, assisting in contacting your family, helping your family to send money, and monitoring your health and welfare," the State Department says.

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