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Artist threatens to destroy Picasso, Rembrandt, Warhol masterpieces with acid if Julian Assange dies in prison

An artist in France said he will destroy up to $45 million worth of artwork by Rembrandt, Picasso, Andy Warhol and others if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange dies in prison.

An artist in France announced plans to use acid to destroy up to $45 million worth of art – including pieces by Rembrandt, Picasso and Andy Warhol — if WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange dies in prison.

Andrei Molodkin said 16 works of art donated to him are held in a 29-ton safe with an "extremely corrosive" substance, British outlet Sky News reported.

Molodkin, a Russian dissident, claimed that boxes containing the art are inside the vault, as well as a pneumatic pump connecting two white barrels – one with acid powder and the other with an accelerator that could cause a chemical reaction strong enough to turn the artwork into debris.

The hearing for Assange's possible final legal appeal challenging his extradition from the U.K. to the U.S. to face charges for publishing classified U.S. military documents will be held at the High Court in London on Feb. 20 and 21. If he is extradited to the U.S. after exhausting all his legal appeals, Assange would face trial in Alexandria, Virginia, and could be sentenced to up to 175 years in an American maximum-security prison.


No publisher had been charged under the Espionage Act until Assange, and many press freedom groups have said his prosecution sets a dangerous precedent intended to criminalize journalism. U.S. prosecutors and critics of Assange have argued WikiLeaks' publication of classified material put the lives of U.S. allies at risk, but there is no evidence that the publishing of the documents put anyone in danger.

The editors and publishers of U.S. and European outlets that worked with Assange on the publication of excerpts from the more than 250,000 documents he obtained in the Cablegate leak – The Guardian, The New York Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel and El País – wrote an open letter in 2022 calling for the U.S. to drop the charges against Assange.

Molodkin's project, known as "Dead Man's Switch," has the support of Assange's wife Stella.

The announcement of the project comes after U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Alice Jill Edwards, called on the U.K. government last week to halt the possible extradition of Assange over concerns that he would be at risk of treatment amounting to torture or other forms of ill-treatment or punishment.

Additionally, a group of Australian lawmakers wrote a letter to U.K. Home Secretary James Cleverly last month demanding Assange's extradition be halted over concerns about his safety and well-being, urging the U.K. government to instead make an independent assessment of Assange's risk of persecution.

Assange's lawyer in the U.K., Jennifer Robinson, has previously said she fears he "would not survive if extradited to the U.S."

Molodkin told Sky News, "In our catastrophic time – when we have so many wars – to destroy art is much more taboo than to destroy the life of a person."

"Since Julian Assange has been in prison ... freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of information has started to be more and more repressed," he continued. "I have this feeling very strongly now."

Assange, 52, is facing 17 charges for allegedly receiving, possessing and communicating classified information to the public under the Espionage Act, and one charge alleging a conspiracy to commit computer intrusion.


The charges were brought by the Trump administration's Justice Department over WikiLeaks' 2010 publication of cables leaked by U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning detailing war crimes committed by the U.S. government in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention camp. The materials also exposed instances of the CIA engaging in torture and rendition.

WikiLeaks' "Collateral Murder" video showing the U.S. military gunning down civilians in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists, was also published 14 years ago.

Assange, an Australian publisher, has been held at London's high-security Belmarsh Prison since he was removed from the Ecuadorian Embassy on April 11, 2019, for breaching bail conditions. He had sought asylum at the embassy since 2012 to avoid being sent to Sweden over allegations he raped two women because Sweden would not provide assurances it would protect him from extradition to the U.S. The investigations into the sexual assault allegations were eventually dropped.

Molodkin has refused to reveal which pieces of art he has inside the safe but said that the works include pieces by Picasso, Rembrandt, Warhol, Jasper Johns, Jannis Kounellis, Robert Rauschenberg, Sarah Lucas, Santiago Sierra, Jake Chapman and others. Molodkin said his own artwork is in the safe as well.

"I believe if something happened and we erased some masterpiece, it will be erased from history - nobody will know which kind of piece it was," Molodkin said. "We have all the documentation and we photographed all of them."

The safe, which is being held at Molodkin's studio in the south of France, will be locked on Friday, but he plans for it to be moved to a museum.

Molodkin explained that the "Dead Man's Switch" works by requiring a 24-hour countdown timer to be reset before it reaches zero to prevent the corrosive substance from being released into the vault. He said the timer will be reset when someone close to Assange confirms he is still alive in prison each day.


The works of art will be returned to their owners if Assange is released from prison, Molodkin said.

He said many collectors are concerned the acid could be released accidentally, but insists the work has been done "very professionally."

Molodkin said he would feel "no emotion" if the art was destroyed because "freedom is much more important."

Giampaolo Abbondio, who owns an art gallery in Milan, said he provided the Picasso artwork for the project and that he signed a non-disclosure agreement prohibiting him from revealing which piece. He said he first told Molodkin "no way" when asked to participate, but that Molodkin was able to change his mind.

"It got me round to the idea that it's more relevant for the world to have one Assange than an extra Picasso, so I decided to accept," Abbondio said. "Let's say I'm an optimist and I've lent it. If Assange goes free, I can have it back."

"Picasso can vary from $10,000 to $100 million but I don't think it's the number of zeros that makes it more relevant when we're talking about a human life," he continued.

Artist Franko B revealed he also provided a piece of art that will be kept in the safe, saying it is a "beautiful piece" and "one of my best pieces."

"I thought it was important that I committed something I care about. I didn't donate something that I found in the corner of my studio. I donated a piece of work that is very dear to me that talks about freedom, censorship," he said. "It's important. It's a small gesture compared to what Assange did and what he's going through."

The Obama administration in 2013 elected not to indict Assange over WikiLeaks' 2010 publication of the classified cables because it would have had to also indict journalists from major news outlets who published the same materials. Former President Obama also commuted Manning’s 35-year sentence for violations of the Espionage Act and other offenses to seven years in January 2017, and Manning, who had been imprisoned since 2010, was released later that year.

But the Justice Department under former President Trump later moved to indict Assange under the Espionage Act, and the Biden administration has continued to pursue his prosecution.

Last year, a cross-party delegation of Australian lawmakers visited Washington, D.C., and met with U.S. officials, members of Congress and civil rights groups to demand the charges against Assange be dropped. Multiple bipartisan efforts were also made last year by U.S. lawmakers who called for Assange's freedom.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has also repeatedly called on the U.S. in the last year to end the prosecution of Assange.

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