On Wednesday there were wild celebrations in Dubai as the emirate was awarded the World Expo for 2020, under the banner of 'connecting minds, creating the future'. Yet beyond the extravagant firework display at the Burj Khalifa a 29-year-old American was beginning his seventh month in prison, charged with the crime of endangering national security for posting a spoof video to YouTube that made light of youth culture in Dubai.
Shezanne Cassim has been living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since 2006, having moved there after graduating from the University of Minnesota, and works as a business consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers. In October 2012 he made a 19-minute mockumentary about a fictional martial arts school that teaches people how to throw sandals in a joke about young people in Dubai who call themselves gangsters but are in fact known for behaving well.
The video began with the caveat 'no offence was intended to the United Arab Emirates' but in April 2013 authorities decided to take offence and arrested Shezanne and others involved with the film. They have been accused of violating the country's punitive cybercrimes law by using information technology to 'endanger state security and its higher interests'. Seven months on and Shezanne has been refused bail three times and no date has been set for a trial.
It is the first case where the cybercrimes law has been used to prosecute a foreigner: until now it has been used exclusively to target online activists who have criticised repression of a movement calling for democratic reform. The case raises many questions, among them the retrospective use of the law as the video was posted in October 2012 while the cybercrimes law was only passed in November 2012.
It also draws into question the depth of truth to Dubai's image of being a 'liberal and open-minded society'. The case comes after a recent report in which 75% of inmates at Dubai Central Prison say they have been tortured and in a year that has seen a victim of rape imprisoned and 3 Britons pardoned after being tortured by police in the desert.
It should be of grave concern for the millions of holidaymakers and expatriates who visit and live in the UAE that Shezanne Cassim has been charged with a state security crime for what is, quite clearly, a silly video that in no way threatens national security. Those in Dubai should take heed of this case because it demonstrates that actions legal now may not remain so and could lead to retrospective punishment in the future.
It is a case that once again exemplifies that beyond the liberal façade of Dubai there lies a darker side of severe punishment for anyone seen to break 'the rules'. As Nicholas McGeehan of Human Rights Watch said on Twitter: "do shop. Do buy. Do support the Expo 2020 bid. DON'T make a spoof video about the place or you will do time."
Following the announcement of Dubai's victory in its bid to host the World Expo, the emirate's ruler tweeted that the event would 'breathe new life into the ancient role of the Middle East as a melting pot for cultures and creativity'. It is difficult to reconcile the image of Dubai that is projected to the world with the reality of those who fall foul of inconsistently applied laws that restrict creativity. There seems to be a well honed public relations image of the emirate that promotes it as a place of modernity, prosperity and freedom, however; there are a growing number of stories that describe a brutal police force who act with impunity within a judiciary that does little to uphold the rule of law.
In the case of Shezanne Cassim the story continues. After months of frustration with the legal system the family have decided to speak out about the case and, given enough publicity, it will likely prove to be the right choice. For a city that relies heavily on its image the reputational damage of negative media coverage often leads to a swift resumption of these cases. The Norweigan lady who was imprisoned after reporting an incident of rape and the three Britons who say Dubai police tortured them were all pardoned and are now safely home. Hopefully the same will be said for Shezanne soon, yet, without meaningful reform of the system it will simply be a matter of time before another shocking case of injustice emerges from Dubai.