A U.S. citizen is awaiting trial over a YouTube mockumentary about gangster-idolizing youth culture in that city.
Shezanne Cassim, a 29-year-old man who previously resided in Minnesota before moving to Dubai in 2006, stands accused of violating the UAE’s latest cybercrime law, which came into effect in November 2012—more than a month after the video was posted. In particular, Cassim allegedly ran afoul of Article 28 of the decree, which forbids using information technology to publish caricatures that are “liable to endanger state security and its higher interests or infringe on public order.” Cassim was arrested in April of this year, the first foreign national charged under the new code.
It’s a striking example of how the United Arab Emirates’ increasingly restrictive cybercrime policies are choking out all forms of digital dissent, and Cassim is hardly the only target. Just a few weeks ago, Waleed Al-Shehhi was sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 500,000 dirhams (about $136,000 U.S.) for tweeting about the mass political trial of 94 democracy activists allegedly linked to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Access to the proceedings was closed to all but a few hand-picked national media outlets, and Al-Shehhi had questioned the lack of transparency, which in the authorities’ eyes amounted to defamation of government. Fellow activist Abdullah Al-Hadidi served 10 months for posting information about the same trial.
Cassim’s case is extreme, however, considering the tongue-in-cheek content of the offending video (at one point there’s a formal lesson on shoe-throwing, an extreme insult in the Arab world), the timing of the so-called crime, and his citizenship status. Cassim may well face jail time—he’s already in a maximum-security prison—and a penalty of 1 million dirhams. It appears he really needn’t have bothered with the video’s opening disclaimer, which cautions that “the following events are fictional and no offence was intended to the people of Satwa and UAE.”
The U.S. State Department is monitoring the case, sending embassy and consulate officials to visit Cassim and attend his court hearings, though that appears to be the extent of the department’s involvement, with “a fair and expedient trial and judgment” the main objective. Two other actors in the video have also been detained. Meanwhile, Rori Donaghy, director of the Emirates Center for Human Rights, has blasted these charges, calling them “as ludicrous as they are harsh,” and remarked that the “defendants should be immediately released because posting a playful video about youth culture in no way endangers anyone’s state security.”