DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – A court in the United Arab Emirates sentenced eight people, including an American, to up to a year in prison Monday after being convicted in connection to a satirical video about youth culture in Dubai.
The video they produced and uploaded to the Internet was a spoof documentary of would-be “gangsta” youth in the Gulf Arab city-state. The state-owned daily The National said they were accused of “defaming the image of United Arab Emirates society abroad.” Supporters of the defendants reported that they were charged under a 2012 cybercrimes law that tightened penalties for challenging authorities.
Shezanne Cassim, a 29-year-old U.S. citizen from Woodbury, Minn., became the public face of the defendants after his family launched an effort to publicize his months-long incarceration following his arrest in April.
Cassim, who was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Dubai for work after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 2006, was sentenced Monday to a year in prison followed by deportation and received a $2,725 fine, according to family spokeswoman Jennifer Gore.
Cassim’s brother, Shervon, called the ruling “painful and unfair.”
“Shez is coming up on nine months incarceration for making a parody. This isn’t justice,” he said in a statement.
American consular officials have been following the case closely and attended Monday’s hearing at the State Security Court in the federal capital, Abu Dhabi.
The U.S. Embassy had no immediate comment following the verdict.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf last week said American officials were troubled by Cassim’s “prolonged incarceration” and called for “a fair and expedient trial and judgment.”
Two Indian defendants received similar sentences, while two Emirati brothers were sentenced to eight months behind bars and received 5,000 dirham fines, according to The National. A third brother was pardoned.
Three other defendants, a Canadian, Briton and an American, were convicted and sentenced in absentia to the penalties given to their other foreigners. They have never been detained by authorities and so are unlikely to serve their sentences.
The paper identified the defendants only by their initials, which is common in the Emirati media.
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, called “Ultimate Combat System: The Deadly Satwa Gs,” is set in the Satwa district of Dubai. It is a documentary style clip 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.
The case has drawn attention from celebrity comedians in the U.S. The comedy video website Funny or Die, co-founded by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, posted a video earlier this month to raise awareness about Cassim’s situation.
In the video, McKay says: “Basically Dubai, if you want to be viewed as an international place, destination – don’t put people in jail for making silly videos. ... It’s one thing to have a bad sense of humor. It’s another thing to lock somebody up because of it.”