How Will Ferrell, Patton Oswalt, and Others Are Trying to Free an American Jailed in UAE

UPDATE, January 10, 2014, 11:26 a.m. EST: On Thursday, Shezanne “Shez” Cassim landed in Minnesota a free man. Early this week, news broke that he was being released early due to time served and good behavior. Cassim came back to the US with his father, who had been in the United Arab Emirates for several months. Cassim spent nine months behind bars. Here is Funny or Die’s brief statement on his release:

We are so happy for Shezanne and his family. We couldn’t be more thrilled with the news of his early release.

“We are planning on meeting Shez once things settle down for him,” Patrick Starzan, head of marketing at Funny or Die, says in an email to Mother Jones. “No firm plans have been made because we just want to give Shez time to be back with his family.”

UPDATE, December 23, 2013, 11:21 a.m. EST: On Monday, a UAE judge sentenced Shezanne “Shez” Cassim to one year in prison for posting a comedy video online. Four other men were jailed for their involvement with the parody video. Cassim’s family is trying to confirm whether the one-year imprisonment includes time served or requires additional jail time. “Shez is coming up on nine months incarceration for making a parody,” Shervon Cassim, Shez’s brother, said in a statement. “This isn’t justice.” Authorities say they plan on deporting Cassim once he completes his sentence. Cassim’s sentencing is “an appalling attack on intellectual freedom and basic human rights,” Rep. Betty McCollum (DFL-Minn.) said.

This week, Funny or Die—Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s comedy website—posted the video (above) in support of Shezanne “Shez” Cassim, an American citizen, former Minnesota resident, and consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers‘ Dubai office, who has been jailed in the United Arab Emirates since April. His crime? Posting his comedy video to YouTube in 2012. The 19-minute video parodies a clique of wannabe-gangster teens in Dubai who take their cues from hip-hop. This earned the 29-year-old amateur comedian a stay at a maximum-security prison in Abu Dhabi, where he awaits his next hearing on December 16. He and eight friends are accused of endangering the Arab country’s security under a newly enacted federal cyber-crimes law. (Here’s where the UAE government stands on other human rights issues, by the way.)

Funny or Die’s video compiles cell phone videos recorded by Ferrell, McKay, Bob Odenkirk, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and other celebrities. “If you start putting people in jail for making videos that you don’t like, then you’re going to have to lock up the The Polyphonic Spree, and that’s no fun for anybody,” says comedian and actor Patton Oswalt. “I’m in a show about politics, and some of our stories are pretty crazy, but even we wouldn’t do a story about a guy being put in jail for eight months because he expressed himself through comedy,” says Tony Hale, of HBO political satire Veep. “It’s one thing to have a bad sense of humor,” says McKay. “It’s another thing to lock people up because of it.”

The US State Department is monitoring the case, and officials from the American embassy in Abu Dhabi and the US Consulate General in Dubai have visited Cassim in prison and attended his court hearings. Funny or Die is in touch with Cassim’s family, and is helping them raise awareness about Shez’ situation, including selling “#FreeShez” T-shirts, with all proceeds going to the Free Shezanne Cassim Fund.

Funny or Die got involved in the #FreeShez campaign after their producer Ally Hord brought Cassim’s story to the staff’s attention. “I look at all the headlines before our Monday morning meeting, and came across a CNN article about him being imprisoned,” Hord tells Mother Jones. “This is our job everyday, and this kid got imprisoned for doing what we get to do for a living. And we heard from the CNN [clip] that he’s a fan of SNL and Funny or Die…I mean, he’s one of our own! And he was being wrongly jailed for something that was really innocuous. So we thought that we had to do something…to help get international eyes on this case.”

The #FreeShez video took about two days to come together. Before releasing it, Funny or Die staff confirmed with Cassim’s family that what they were planning wouldn’t in any way hurt the campaign to free Cassim. The video was posted online on Tuesday in conjunction with a Cassim family press conference, and coincided with Human Rights Day.

“I just want my son home for Christmas,” said Cassim’s mother, Jean, in a statement.

Watch the short video that landed Cassim in prison:


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