MINNEAPOLIS – An American who's been held in the United Arab Emirates for nine months in connection with a satirical online video about youth culture in Dubai was expected to be released soon, the U.S. State Department said Tuesday.
Shezanne Cassim, 29, of Woodbury, Minn., was arrested in April, six months after he and others uploaded their spoof documentary to the Internet. The video is about would-be "gangsta" youth in the Gulf Arab city-state.
The United Arab Emirates-owned daily, The National, has said Cassim and his co-defendants were accused of defaming the country's image abroad. Cassim's supporters said he was charged under a 2012 cybercrimes law that tightened penalties for challenging authorities.
In December, Cassim was sentenced to one year in prison, a fine and deportation.
Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a State Department spokeswoman, said Tuesday that Cassim has been 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," she said in an email to The Associated Press.
"The protection of U.S. citizens overseas is one of the Department of State's highest priorities," Jhunjhunwala said. "We continue to work closely with the UAE authorities to ensure his quick release."
Rori Donaghy, director of the London-based Emirates Center for Human Rights, said Cassim's pending release is not surprising. Although it is not codified in Emirati law, Donaghy said, it is customary for defendants who have demonstrated good behavior to be released after serving three-fourths of their sentence.
Donaghy said Cassim and his friends never should have been imprisoned, and that authorities have continued to use the cybercrimes law to restrict free speech.
Cassim, a U.S. citizen, was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Dubai for work after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2006. He became the public face of the defendants after his family launched an effort to publicize his months-long incarceration.
Seven others were convicted with him in December.
Gulf Arab authorities have been cracking down on social media use over the past two years, with dozens of people arrested across the region for Twitter posts deemed offensive to leaders or for social media campaigns urging more political openness.
The video, titled "Ultimate Combat System: The Deadly Satwa Gs," is set in the Satwa district of Dubai. It is a documentary-style video that pokes fun at Dubai youth who styled themselves "gangstas" but are not particularly thuggish, and shows fictional "combat" training that includes throwing a sandal and using a mobile phone to call for help.
It opens with text saying the video is fictional and is not meant to offend.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who had been working on Cassim's release and pushed to have his sentence include time served, said the decision to release him was the "right thing to do."
"Jailing this young man for months for posting a harmless video made absolutely no sense, especially in a country that prides itself on being a tolerant and just nation," she said.