UAE made me 'a scapegoat': US man jailed for YouTube gag

WASHINGTON (AFP) - An American jailed for nine months in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for making a spoof YouTube video mocking Dubai teenagers returned home on Thursday, comparing the experience to being in a "cage". Being back on American soil "feels great", Shezanne Cassim, 29, told an impromptu press conference just a few minutes after arriving at the Minneapolis-St Paul airport following his deportation from Dubai.

"There's a misconception that I broke a law. But I want to say that I did nothing wrong. There was nothing illegal about the video even under UAE law," Cassim stressed.

"I was tried in a textbook kangaroo court, and I was convicted without any evidence. So to me this verdict is meaningless."

After being arrested in April, Cassim was eventually sentenced in December to a fine of 10,000 dirhams (S$3,461) and a year in jail charged under a controversial new cybercrime law.

The 19-minute Satwa Comedy School video gently parodies Dubai teenagers from the city's Satwa district who styled themselves as tough "gangstas" wearing hip-hop clothes and listening to rap music, but who in reality were known for very mild behavior.

In the mock documentary, Cassim and his friends learn the latest techniques of "Satwa Gs combat", which include the correct way to throw a shoe at a newspaper, and how in extreme cases to use a mobile phone to call for back-up.

"My opinion is that given the political situation there, they're scared of democracy. They wanted to send a message to the UAE public, saying that 'Look what we'll do to the people who want to do just a silly video'," Cassim said.

"So imagine what they'll do to somebody who's actually critical of the government. It's a warning message and we're scapegoats."

He confirmed that he had had very limited access to information about what was happening about his case, and said there was "no abuse, but in terms of the prison facilities, there was nothing.

"It was like being pretty much in a cage for nine months, no TV, no nothing, no music."

Cassim, a naturalised United States (US) citizen born in Sri Lanka who worked for the multinational company Pricewaterhouse Coopers, has lived in the United Arab Emirates since 2006.

"I have access to Burger King again, so that's like a big plus for me," he joked as well on arrival.

Cassim's case caught the attention of leading US comedians such as Will Ferrell, who made a video for the campaign to free him.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Washington had consistently raised Cassim's case with officials "as we were deeply concerned by the verdict".

Two Indian defendants were handed a similar punishment, while two Emirati brothers, already behind bars, were jailed for eight months and each fined 5,000 dirhams,, The National daily in the UAE reported.

A Canadian woman, a British woman and an American man who were never detained were also sentenced to one year in jail, in addition to being fined, the newspaper added.

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