It began with an inside joke and rapidly turned into an international spectacle.
Shezanne Cassim, a 29-year-old from Minnesota, returned home to America on Jan. 9 after spending nine months behind bars in a maximum-security prison in the United Arab Emirates. His crime: a parody video about fictional gangsters-in-training. Cassim sat down with CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday and spoke about how grateful he is to be back home.
"It was just great to see my family relieved," Cassim told "New Day” of his homecoming. "(I) went home and we just talked. Didn't do anything special, but that was (what was) special about it. It was nice to sleep on a real bed and just enjoy (the basic comforts) that we all take for granted."
Cassim's 19-minute parody video, which was posted on YouTube in October 2012, depicts him and a group of friends dressed up as would-be gangsters in the Dubai district of Satwa. They are shown “training” how to fight by throwing sandals and calling for backup on a cellphone. At the time of the filming, Cassim was working as a business consultant in Dubai, CNN noted.
Authorities in the UAE took offense at the video, and in April 2013, Cassim and a group of friends were arrested in Dubai. They were accused of violating cybercrime laws and endangering national security and were transferred to a maximum-security prison in Abu Dhabi to await sentencing.
“We had no idea of what our crime was. We had no idea how long we'd be in prison for. We weren't actually told what our crime was until five months later, after we were taken in," Cassim told "New Day." "I was too numb to be scared."
Cassim’s overseas detainment caught the attention of celebrities back home. In December 2013, comedians Will Ferrell and Adam McKay created a Funny or Die video asking for Cassim’s release.
"It's one thing to have a bad sense of humor. It's another thing to lock somebody up because of it," McKay says in the Funny or Die post.
Later in December, eight people involved with Cassim's parody video (including Cassim himself) were sentenced to time in prison for defaming the UAE's image abroad, according to The National, the UAE’s main English newspaper.
Cassim was given a one-year prison sentence and a fine of 10,000 UAE dirhams (approximately $2,700). However, he was released early for good behavior and got credit for his time already served, CBS reported. Vigilant efforts from family members also helped his cause.
“We knew that we had to stick together and do whatever we had to do to get Shez out,” Cassim’s brother told Minnesota’s Star Tribune.
Cassim told CNN that he is contemplating returning to the UAE because he still believes in the country. His future may also include pursuing film “at a more serious level,” per the Star Tribune.