A one-time Soviet dissident says he is a victim of runaway political correctness after his arrest for putting up posters protesting a pro-Palestinian student group.
Oleg Atbashian was threatened with a five-year jail sentence for placing posters in public places at George Mason University. The posters were critical of Students for Justice in Palestine, he told AMI Newswire.
University police arrested Atbashian on Nov. 4 on charges of destruction of public property and vandalism. The charges seemed to center on just what kind of glue was used to put up the posters at different locations around the campus.
“Yes, they have the right to free speech, and they have the right to put up posters,” George Mason spokesman Michael Dandler said in an email to AMI. “But they don’t have the right to destroy public property, which they did in several places on campus.”
The adhesive required a lot of time to remove, and workers had to repaint several places where the posters had been affixed, Dandler said.
Atbashian denied that any property was destroyed. The adhesive used to mount the posters was made of a wheat and water paste that could be easily removed with water, he said.The Florida resident was accused of intentionally destroying, defacing or damaging building signs, road signs, interior doors and bus shelters belonging to the university, according to the arrest records. The damage to property was listed as at least $1,000.
Atbashian, who immigrated to the United States in 1994, and a friend put up stickers and posters around the Virginia campus as part of a campaign conceived by the non-profit David Horowitz Freedom Center, he said. Atbashian views the pro-Palestinian group as anti-Semitic and having ties to Hamas, a group that has pledged to destroy Israel.
"George Mason University, in particular, has distinguished itself with examples of enforced unanimity, suppression of free speech and outright ideological intolerance among its students and faculty," he said on his satirical website, The People's Cube.
Atbashian is now free on bail, though he spent about 14 hours in custody before securing bail and being released.
“Now the court date is set for Feb. 14, 2017,” he said, “and I’m hoping that the GMU will drop their bogus charges before that date.”
The protest campaign was aimed at countering a national conference for Students for Justice in Palestine held at George Mason University. The group describes itself as a band of students and faculty who educate people about the struggles of Palestinians against “apartheid and occupation.”
“Back in my Soviet dissident days, when I was collecting signatures in defense of Andrei Sakharov, I was screamed at, threatened and lectured by the KGB and Communist functionaries,” said Atbashian. “What I never imagined was that in the United States, the land of the free, I would not only be subjected to similar treatment, but go to jail for my political activism, which never happened to me even in the USSR.”
George Mason has received other criticism in the wake of the presidential election when its senior assistant director of admissions, Andrew Bunting, made some posts on his Facebook page that upset conservatives. Bunting offered a sharp retort to the National Organization for Marriage expressing a desire to work with Donald Trump on nominating justices to the Supreme Court.
“If you agree with them, then that is your opinion,” Bunting said. “Just know that to the rest of us, you are a piece of worthless trash.”
The university issued a statement days later distancing itself from Bunting’s post and saying the post was at odds with the inclusive nature of the school’s admissions process.
“Recently, a George Mason admissions employee made political comments on a private social media account, which were later shared publicly by a media website,” the university’s statement said. “The views expressed by the employee were his own personal views, not the views of the university.”
The artwork Atbashian created was provocative in that it showed a gun-wielding Hamas member stepping in the blood of victims of violence. And police told him that some students found the posters violent and disturbing, Atbashian said, even though the artist’s original intent was to express sympathy for victims of terrorism.
The American Defamation League has labeled Students for Justice in Palestine as the No. 1 organizer of anti-Israel events on American university campuses. The David Horowitz Freedom Center, meanwhile, has come under fire from groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center for allegedly promoting anti-Muslim extremism.
Connections between Hamas and the student group have also been discussed during congressional testimony this year by Jonathan Schanzer, vice president of the Research Foundation for Defense of Democracies.