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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

U.A.E. Releases American Who Was Jailed for Satirical Video

An American man who was jailed in the United Arab Emirates for his part in a satirical video is being released this week after serving his sentence, a representative of the man’s family said.

Shezanne Cassim, 29, was jailed by a State Security Court on Dec. 23 under an article of the federal cybercrimes law, which provides for jail and fines for anyone who uses information technology to publish caricatures that are “liable to endanger state security and its higher interests or infringe on public order.” At the time of the sentencing, Mr. Cassim, who is from Woodbury, Minn., had already been in detention since April.

On Tuesday, a representative for his family, Jennifer P. Gore, said in a statement that customary practice in the United Arab Emirates equates nine months imprisonment to a one-year sentence, so Mr. Cassim was already being processed for deportation based on time served and was expected home this week.

“I can’t tell you how relieved our family is by this turn of events,” Mr. Cassim’s brother, Shervon Cassim, said in a statement. “We are very excited, and we are grateful to everyone who worked to free Shez.”

The local KSTP channel said in a report that he could be arriving at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Thursday morning.

The video comedy sketch, created by Mr. Cassim and four other men who were also detained, was about the fictitious Satwa Combat School, set in the Dubai neighborhood of the same name, with an instructor named Saloom Snake, who trained combatants to throw sandals, use the thin ropes of an Arab headdress as weapons and summon help on Twitter for fights that never actually occur. The video was posted on YouTube in 2012.

In the opening scene of their satirical 20-minute video, the amateur filmmakers posted a disclaimer saying: “The following events are fictional and no offense was intended to the people of Satwa and U.A.E.”

But it did little good convincing the authorities. Two Indian men were also given a one-year sentence and, like Mr. Cassim, a fine of 10,000 dirhams, about $2,700. The court had also given two Emirati citizens eight-month sentences each and fines of 5,000 dirhams, while three other foreigners were sentenced to a year each in their absence, The National, a local newspaper, reported.

Mr. Cassim’s case was widely shared on social media and Twitter, using the hashtag #FreeShez, to highlight freedom-of-speech and artistic expression restrictions in the Gulf Arab emirates. A website was created to provide updates on his case, and the American comic actor Will Ferrell and others created a video statement in support.

The Twitter account @JusticeforShez highlighted Mr. Cassim’s case in the broader context of how the emirates were trying to attract high-profile cultural and music events.

After the release was announced, Rori Donaghy, the director of the Emirates Center for Human Rights, which monitors human rights in the U.A.E., also drew attention to the cybercrimes law.

Mr. Donaghy said in a statement:

It is of great relief for the Cassim family that Shezanne can return home, but until authorities change the cybercrimes law it is simply a matter of time before another story of injustice emerges from the U.A.E.

Shezanne Cassim and his friends should never have been put in prison, and hopefully they can recover from this nightmare, but for the peaceful Emirati activists who use the Internet to challenge human rights abuse there is no escaping authorities who have criminalized even the mildest forms of criticism.”

The forthcoming release of these young filmmakers is welcome but it does not solve the issue. Authorities continue to use the cybercrimes law to restrict free speech, as demonstrated by the recent sentencing of a 19-year-old Emirati activist to three years in prison for using Twitter to speak out about human rights violations in his country.

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.