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American recounts experiences of United Arab Emirates prison

MINNEAPOLIS -- An American held in the United Arab Emirates for nine months for his role in an online parody video about youth culture in Dubai said Friday that he was scared at times and was kept in filthy conditions where guards “shouted at everyone like dogs.”

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Shezanne Cassim said the lowest point of his ordeal came when he learned he was being transferred to a maximum-security prison in Abu Dhabi — and the gravity of his situation set in.

“At that moment, I felt fear,” he said. “It no longer ... felt like it was something ridiculous that could be just sorted out. At that point it was like, 'Is this really happening?'”

Friday's interview marked the first time Cassim, 29, has publicly shared his account of some details about his confinement.

Cassim was living and working in Dubai when he was arrested last April — months after posting his satirical video online. He was moved to the Abu Dhabi prison in June, and was eventually charged with endangering state security under a 2012 cybercrimes law that tightened penalties for challenging authorities.

He and seven others were convicted and sentenced. Cassim was released earlier this month and returned to his family in Minnesota. Cassim's attorney, Susan Burns, said all the co-defendants who were detained have now been released.

Cassim, who grew up in Dubai, said he and his friends made the video to celebrate the city's diverse culture and create some local entertainment. The video, titled “Ultimate Combat System: The Deadly Satwa Gs,” pokes fun at a segment of Dubai youth and shows fictional “combat” training, such as using a mobile phone to call for help.

“When I made the video, I didn't think I was doing anything wrong,” he said.

The video had been online for about six months, when suddenly the number of views spiked, and Cassim got called to the police station.

Cassim was questioned for about an hour, as police asked: “Who has paid you to make this video? How much are they paying you? Who is behind this?” he recalled.

“Naturally I was quite shocked at hearing these kinds of questions,” he said. “But you know, we tried to convey the message, 'Look it's just a joke. We're not part of anything.'”

He said he was shuffled overnight from room to room and told to sign a statement, which he didn't understand because it was in Arabic. He took a polygraph test and passed, despite a slight panic when asked whether he was part of a foreign anti-government organization.

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Shezanne Cassim poses for the picture in the office of his attorney in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Friday, Jan. 17. (AP)

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