Minnesotan who was held in UAE prison over online parody video seeks pardon, compensation



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    MINNEAPOLIS — An American who spent nine months in a United Arab Emirates prison for his role in an online parody video is seeking a pardon and financial compensation.

    Shezanne Cassim, 30, of Woodbury, told The Associated Press on Thursday that he has faced difficulty getting a job in the United States because he now has a criminal record.

    "I have to explain to them (prospective employers) I was in prison for violating the country's (UAE) national security," said Cassim, a 2006 graduate of the University of Minnesota. He said he had hoped for a consulting career in aviation in the UAE where he grew up.

    In a March 9 letter to Emirati President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Cassim — a U.S. citizen — said his time in prison in Abu Dhabi destroyed his career and nearly bankrupted his family as they fought to secure his release.

    "My imprisonment caused significant financial and emotional hardship, and we all felt betrayed by the country in which my siblings and I grew up and for whose growth my parents gave decades of their lives," Cassim's letter read.

    Cassim's letter also was sent to Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, the federation's ambassador to Washington. Cassim's attorney, Susan Burns of Minneapolis, said the UAE has not responded. She would not say how much compensation is being sought.

    The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in Washington, D.C., said it could not comment on a legal matter, and the UAE government in Dubai didn't respond to a request for comment. The U.S. State Department said it had no comment.

    Fionnuala Ni Aolain, a University of Minnesota law professor and researcher in international law and human rights, said a UAE decision on Cassim's request would likely focus little on his case and more on any "perceptional benefit to ... being seen to be merciful to a U.S. citizen."

    Cassim was born in Sri Lanka but spent much of his childhood living in Dubai. He returned there after graduating from the University of Minnesota, and was working as a business consultant when he was arrested in 2013, months after posting his satirical video online. The video, titled "Ultimate Combat System: The Deadly Satwa Gs," pokes fun at a segment of Dubai youth and shows fictional "combat" training, such as using a mobile phone to call for help.

    Cassim said the video was just "jokes with my friends." But he was tried under a cybercrimes law, found guilty and sentenced to one year in prison, a fine and deportation. Seven others also were convicted and sentenced.

    After his arrest, Cassim was held for about two months in the Dubai jail, then transferred in June 2013 to a maximum-security prison in Abu Dhabi, and eventually charged with endangering state security. The UAE-owned daily, The National, has said Cassim and others were accused of defaming the country's image abroad.

    Cassim got credit for time served and time off for good behavior. He was released from prison in January 2014 and returned to Minnesota, where he said he is writing down his thoughts for a possible book.

    Cassim said the ordeal "just left a scar."

    "I lost a year of my life," he said.


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