Return to Transcripts main page


Free Shez Movement Takes Off; Refugee Children Face Polio Outbreak; Budget in Senate; Questions Remain About Mandela Memorial Interpreter; China Lands Rover on Moon

Aired December 16, 2013 - 12:00   ET


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: We are talking about 29-year-old Shezanne Cassim of Minnesota, spent the last eight months locked up in the United Arab Emirates, and authorities there say that this video threatened national security. Well, today, he was set to tell his side of the story in court. Now Washington and Hollywood trying to get him out of jail. CNN's Sara Sidner has the story from Abu Dhabi.


WILL FERRELL, ACTOR: Hi, this is Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. And we are submitting this in support of Shez.

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Will Ferrell and other well-known comedians are taking up a serious cause, banding together to fight for the release of American citizen Shezanne Cassim, known as Shez.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Locking people up for what they say or what they think is funny is brutal and, beyond that, it just doesn't work.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So if anyone deserves to go to jail, I do.

SIDNER: Cassim has been locked up for the past eight months after posting this video online.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This now, this is more dangerous weapon.

SIDNER: He filmed it with several friends. All are now being held. They intended it to be a parody about would-be gangsters on the not so dangerous streets of a Dubai suburb. Cassim had been working and living in Dubai. Now his concerned family in Minnesota has desperately been seeking answers as to why he's still behind bars.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's going stir crazy in that cell.

SIDNER: And for weeks, CNN has been searching for answers, as well.

SIDNER (on camera): This is Sara with CNN. Can you tell me anything about the Shezanne Cassim case?

SIDNER (voice-over): For the first time, the UAE responded with a written statement from the embassy confirming that Cassim is in fact incarcerated and charged, but would not give specifics on his case. It said, in part, "Mr. Cassim was charged under the UAE's penal code. Anyone charged with a crime under the laws of the UAE is entitled to the fair trial protections contained in the UAE's constitution."

His plight has also reached Washington. This letter, first on CNN, was sent to Secretary of State John Kerry from Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. It says in part, "the conditions surrounding his confinement are very serious and call for immediate attention. Please take any action possible to assist Mr. Cassim."


MALVEAUX: Sara Sidner is joining us live with the very latest.

So, Sara, first of all, what did we expect from these proceedings today? What has this actually accomplished? Do they think that this somehow gets him any closer to getting out?

SIDNER: That is the question that the family simply does not have the answer to. We went to the court hearing today. It lasted all of five minutes. Five of these gentlemen were standing up there, including Shezanne Cassim. Basically the judge had them sit down. And then, at the very end of the proceeding, said to them, come back December 23rd.

So that is all we got from the court today. The family was hoping beyond hope that perhaps today would be the day that they finally were able to say, OK, you're released. That didn't happen and the fight continues, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Sara, what did he look like? I can only imagine his family is wondering how he's doing. What was his demeanor like? Did he look like he was still healthy? How is he being taken care of?

SIDNER: You know, I didn't really recognize him, to be honest with you, from the pictures. He looks really different. He was quiet. He looked down. He didn't look much over to the families. A lot of the family members of the other four people that are in jail alongside him, his friends, were there.

They were waving and having conversations with sign language across the courtroom. He was quiet, sullen. He was sort of to himself. He looked a bit down and his hair had gotten quite a bit longer. So kind of a different looking guy than what you see in those pictures and in the videos, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: That is so sad. Sara, what's next here for him?

SIDNER: What we heard from the court is that there is the next hearing, which is in just a week's time. These hearings keep coming along. Sometimes they actually end up in court. Sometimes the hearings are postponed. But again, another week and very close to Christmas. December 23rd is the next hearing. We will go and bring you whatever we hear comes out of court.


MALVEAUX: All right. We certainly wish him the very best. Sara, thank you very much. Please keep us posted on that.

Also to the bombs. These were unleashed in Syria. Just watch this.


MALVEAUX: What you're seeing here, this is the devastation. It is just absolutely tremendous. This is after government helicopters dropped barrels packed with explosives on a dozen neighborhoods. An opposition group says at least 83 people were killed, many women, children, among the dead.

The aerial bombardments happened in the city of Aleppo, which is a rebel stronghold. But across Syria, the U.N. estimates that the civil war has killed more than 100,000 people, forced more than 2 million Syrians to leave the country, and that has created a huge refugee crisis.

Want to bring in Mohammed Jamjoom. He takes us to a refugee camp. This is in neighboring Lebanon. This is where Syrian children face a crippling virus.


MOHAMMED JAMJOOM, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): As conflict spills over, viruses spread quicker than violence. In surroundings even dirtier than the war they escaped, these Syrian refugee children face another potential agony -- polio. Highly contagious and potentially deadly, the crippling and incurable disease recently re-emerged in Syria, paralyzing children. Aid workers knew they had to act fast.


JAMJOOM (on camera): They're concerned enough that they're going tent to tent. This is the largest immunization program against polio in the Middle East.

JAMJOOM (voice-over): UNICEF and the World Health Organization are attempting to vaccinate as many as 23 million children both inside and outside Syria. Neighboring Lebanon's particularly at risk.


JAMJOOM: It houses the highest concentration of refugees. More than 800,000 Syrians registered in this tiny country so far.

DR. ZEIN EL DINE SAAD, LEBANESE MINISTRY OF HEALTH: There are new families are escaping from the war in Syria and coming over there. We are afraid just one of these cases are infected by virus by this polio virus.

JAMJOOM (on camera): In a camp like this, sewage, there's trash everywhere, it's unsanitary. That makes it easier for the virus to transmit, right?

SAAD: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, of course, of course

JAMJOOM (voice-over): Here, children routinely wade through filth.

JAMJOOM (on camera): And makeshift refugee camps like this one, the conditions are absolutely appalling. Here, they're essentially living in an open sewer. There is trash and human waste all around. It is hard enough trying to walk through this camp, let alone actually trying to live here.

JAMJOOM (voice-over): Doctors say it's not just polio they're at risk of getting. That they could easily contract anything from hepatitis, to scabies, to the mumps. I asked 12-year-old Maria if her family fears they'll get sick be.

"Of course, we're worried," she says. "We're all crowded together here. If one person gets sick, they'll definitely spread it to everybody else here, too."

The medics wrap up as the weather worsens. Winter's at hand. The cold only exacerbating the misery. Parents who worry about polio now also wonder how they'll shield their families from are the elements. But the children keep playing. No matter how young they are, for them, the harshest possible existence is almost expected.

Mohammed Jamjoom, CNN, in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.


MALVEAUX: We are also following this in the U.S., the Senate under a lot of pressure now to prevent another government shutdown. A vote is scheduled tomorrow in a bipartisan budget deal that the House overwhelmingly passed last week. But the shutdown clock, it is ticking. Time, of course, running out. If the senators do not pass the budget, the government will run out of money on January 15th. Do the Democrats have the votes to get it passed?


SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), MAJORITY WHIP: This is the right thing to do for our country, a bipartisan agreement to get the first real budget in five years. And I hope that at least eight or maybe even more Republican senators will join us. Well, we have a handful, but we need more. Some are still thinking about it.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I hope it will pass the Senate. I'll do anything -- not anything, but we must not shut down the government again. We can't do that to the people of this country and my state.


MALVEAUX: All right. Wolf, they say they can't do it. We'll see what happens. Wolf Blitzer, of course, joining us here. Our latest poll, Wolf, says the survey of senators, 35 saying yes votes, at least two are Republican yeses, including John McCain, we saw him there. Twenty Republican senators have told us they're voting no. What do we think of getting to the magic number of 60 needed to shut down the debate and vote on the budget? WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": I think they'll get the 60. There's 55 Democrats in the Senate, 53 Democrats, two Independents who vote with the Democrats, so there's 55. I think that almost all of them, maybe one or two won't go along, but I suspect almost all of them will. So, if Durbin is right, let's say you need eight Republicans, I think they can get eight Republicans, they'll get the 60 votes to allow the real vote to go forward. And you'll need 51. You need 50 plus Biden if he has a tie-breaker. But you'll easily get the 51.

So I suspect the vote will happen. It will pass. The House passed it overwhelmingly last week. The president will immediately sign it into law. There won't be a government shutdown in January. The president, for the first time in a while, will be able to leave with his own family, Suzanne, later this week for their two week vacation in Hawaii. So I guess he and a lot of other folks are going to be happy to get out of this town with that budget deal passed.

MALVEAUX: Yes. Maybe we'll all get a little bit of a vacation, including you, Wolf, but I seriously doubt it.

BLITZER: I'd like that.

MALVEAUX: Yes. Well, maybe we'll all get a break.

Let's talk about the motivation behind it because you've got 12 Republican senators, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, running for re-election next year. So how much of this is voting against the budget deal and more about self-preservation?

BLITZER: Well, a lot of it's - you know, these are politicians and they want to get themselves re-elected. If you're a Republican senator up for re-election in 2014, you're nervous about having a Tea Party challenger if you go along too much with the establishment.

So there will be some, maybe even Mitch McConnell, he faces a Tea Party challenge in Kentucky, and others. Even Lindsey Graham, who's often very open to working across the aisle, working with Democrats, he's got a Tea Party challenger in South Carolina. So there will be some Republicans who will vote against this budget deal because they're afraid of a primary challenge, if you will.

But it's a relatively easy vote for these senators because there will be, I suspect, more than 60 votes to get through that initial proceed hurdle. So they can vote against it, they can argue they opposed it, but at the same time, they don't have to worry about a government shutdown.

MALVEAUX: All right. We all don't have to worry about a government shutdown. That's a good thing. Thanks, Wolf. Appreciate it.

BLITZER: Thank you.

MALVEAUX: Two law enforcement officials in Boston are telling CNN that a bomb scare at Harvard University now looks like a hoax. The school started evacuating four buildings, including a dorm, this morning after someone phoned in a bomb threat. So far, authorities say that they have not found anything.

But given the Boston Marathon bombings earlier this year, you can see, of course, how they wouldn't want to take any chances. Out of abundance of caution, they actually evacuated many of those buildings there. Students are taking finals this week. Some of those exams supposed to take place in those evacuated buildings. The school newspaper, "The Harvard Crimson," saying that those exams have now been postponed.

And the so-called fake interpreter who made no sense when he signed for the deaf at Nelson Mandela's memorial service, well, still has more questions to answer. More importantly, how did he get so close to President Obama? We have the latest on this embarrassing security lapse.

And, an all-out effort to save pandas from extinction. We're going to take you to China to show you what they are actually doing so you'll be able to see a little bit more of those adorable, adorable pandas, up next.


MALVEAUX: Comedians and "Saturday Night Live" poking fun at the sign language interpreter for Nelson Mandela's memorial service. He made news, as you recall, last week because experts said he was signing nonsense.

But what is not funny is this. This man, who is being called a fraud, stood feet away from the most powerful world leaders, including President Obama.

And Errol Barnett, he's joining us from Johannesburg with more on the angle here, because a lot of South African leaders, they're upset, but then there are other leaders around the world who are asking the same question.

How did this guy pass the clearance system to even get that the close?


You know, yesterday South Africa laid to rest the late Nelson Mandela after 10 days of public mourning, but this what appears to be a possible security lapse is what many people are talking about.

Suzanne, CNN was able to get our hands onto essentially Thamsanqa Jantjie's rap sheet. And it shows that between 1994 and 2006, he faced a number of charges, including rape and murder. Those he was found not guilty, but he faced other charges like theft, housebreaking, malicious damage to property. Those where is withdrawn. We don't know the exactly why, but he was found guilty of theft back in 1996.

Compound that, Suzanne, with what Jantjie told us last week when we sat down with him and asked him what were the signs that he was interpreting during that Tuesday memorial service for Nelson Mandela. He admitted to suffering a schizophrenic episode. So right there, we now know that the South African government allowed a man suffering from schizophrenia to stand feet away from not just United States President Barack Obama but we also had U.N. Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon, the Brazilian president, Dilma Roussef, French President Francois Hollande, and it goes on.

So many people are wondering exactly why did the government allow this man to stand so close to so many important people on such an important day.

MALVEAUX: Oh, Errol, I guess the bottom line is, what was the process? Did they have any procedure in place to actually screen this guy?

BARNETT: Well, the South African government did conduct a press conference last week. They answered reporters' questions. They admitted that mistakes were made in hiring this man.

They said, though, they couldn't get in the contact with Interpreters S.A., which Jantjie says is the company through which he was accredited and employed, the South African government even saying that company had effectively vanished. We went to the address on the business card Jantjie gave us and the women at that location says that that business doesn't exist. So the government here has launched an investigation. They haven't released details to us.

But, Suzanne, over the weekend, all these details are emerging in various publications and newspapers. The bottom line is the same though. Why did the government, if they did in fact vet this man and know he had a criminal record, allow him to stand next to such prominent people.?

And we also, Suzanne, have video of this same interpreter next to President Jacob Zuma last year. So this isn't a man who appeared once. It's someone who's been close to the government for some time. And we should also mention that President Jacob Zuma is facing corruption charges in other areas. That's a massive complaint people in this country have about the government.

So, unfortunately, it may be showing that South Africa today is a far cry from that of Nelson Mandela years ago.

MALVEAUX: Yeah, Errol, it certainly is very puzzling and troubling, even. They've got a lot of questions to be answered. Really it just doesn't make any sense, what happened there. Errol, thank you very much. We really appreciate it.

And, of course, as Errol mentioned, Nelson Mandela now in his final resting place, his state funeral was held over the weekend in a village where he grew up. About 4,500 people pack aid huge at the present time for the ceremony. Mandela was buried near the graves of three of his children. A 30-foot bronze statue of Mandela was unveiled in Pretoria as part of today's National Day of Reconciliation. Mandela was sworn in as president in the city nearly 20 years ago. It's beautiful.

China has landed a rover on the moon, and Russia is spending billions of dollars on its own space program. So where does that leave the United States in the great space race? We're going to go live to Miami for some answers.


MALVEAUX: So China has stepped up its pace in the space race. Saturday, it successfully landed an unmanned probe on the moon.

That is the latest in what has been a fascinating race to space. You recall, of course, in 1957, the former Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik One, the world's first artificial satellite. It weighed only about 183 pounds.

And then, of course, this, the U.S. making history back in 1969.


NEIL ARMSTRONG, U.S. ASTRONAUT: That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.


MALVEAUX: All right. You'll recognize that, NASA's Neil Armstrong becoming the first man on the moon with the Apollo 11 crew.

And in 1981, NASA ushered in a whole new era of exploration with the space shuttle missions. Watch.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The takeoff of America's first space shuttle, and the shuttle has cleared the tower.


MALVEAUX: Well, that moment is always magical.

John Zarrella in Miami, you've covered so many of these space missions, and you see it. It's almost like it takes your breath away every single time you see something like that.

But let's talk about the big picture here, right? You've got Russia spending about $70 billion on its program. You've got China sending its first astronaut into space back in 2003. Now, the moon landing.

Is there a threat here, U.S. outsourcing space exploration to the private sector, that we're behind?

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, put it in perspective though. As you brought up, in 1972, the last U.S. astronaut walked on the moon. We're not talking about a moon landing here with humans.

The United States is still pretty far ahead when it comes to human exploration. Don't forget the United States went 130 million miles and put the Rover Curiosity and a bunch of other Rovers on mars. So the U.S. still has a tremendous edge inning technology. But you're right. The Chinese, the Russians are spending a lot of money. They're looking at the moon very ambitiously.

In fact, a couple of years ago, when the shuttle program was ending, I had the opportunity to talk to experts who said look, the Chinese are going to be the ones and they're not going to wait around.


EUGENE CERNAN, NASA ASTRONAUT: They realize the value of space.

They realize the economic value of space, they realize the significance in terms of international diplomacy and what it means, and they certainly realize that the high ground is certainly significant when it comes to national security. They're smart enough to know all those things and they're going to take advantage of them.

NORMAN AUGUSTINE, FORMER CHAIRMAN, HUMAN SPACEFLIGHT COMMITTEE: If I were China, I would head out for an asteroid in the very near future.

That will be a stunner to America when that happens, probably eclipsing what we saw the reaction to what Russia did with Sputnik.

And ironically, it might be a good thing for us, because it might wake us up that as Sputnik did.


ZARRELLA: A lot of the experts have said just that. If the Chinese do something really dramatic or the Russians, it may be the second space race.

Now, what is they've done now is a precursor. Clearly, a lot of experts say to the Chinese embarking on human exploration of the moon, that's still a ways away. But we can see how things are really, really heating up.

MALVEAUX: It could be definitely a wake-up call. And you've got people, you know, billionaires, pioneers like Richard Branson, pushing to commercialize space, selling tickets to whoever can afford it to get into space.

What does that say about the government funded projects in the future and where we stand on that?

ZARRELLA: Sure. You know, 200,000 for Branson to get on one of his flights when this he start flying. You'll go weightless for five, six minutes, and it's a very short flight. But he's got people lined up who've got the money to do that.

But the United States, the -- NASA clearly is the only game in town when it comes to deep-space exploration. They've got the Orion capsule being readied. They're going to do a test flight, hopefully, the end of 2014. So -- but that's go to be the way the United States goes to an asteroid or goes to Mars is going to be with NASA, not these private, low-earth orbit ventures like Branson or SpaceX

MALVEAUX: John, would you pay money, if you had it, to go to space?

ZARRELLA: I would try to raise the money. I don't think -- maybe get somebody to send me. Pay for me to go. That would be nice.

But, no, I would absolutely go. Had the opportunity, I'd be there in a second.

MALVEAUX: All right, we'll do a little fund-raiser for you. Start selling some cookies.

ZARRELLA: There you go.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, John. Good to see you.

Evander Holyfield, going to Bulgaria to help out Syrian refugees, here's why.


EVANDER HOLYFIELD, FORMER BOXING CHAMP: They won't be asking about how many championships I won. They'll say, what did you do for the least of them? You know what I'm saying?

I can say, all right, this is what -- I was in Bulgaria.


MALVEAUX: Going to tell you about the former boxing champ's new fight, coming up next.