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Acid to destroy Picasso, Rembrandt and Warhol masterpieces if Julian Assange dies in prison, artist claims

An artist has defended plans to destroy masterpieces by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt and Andy Warhol with acid if Julian Assange dies in prison.

Andrei Molodkin says he has gathered 16 works of art - which he estimates are collectively worth more than $45m (£42.77m) - in a 29-tonne safe with an "extremely corrosive" substance.

Inside the vault are boxes containing the art and 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 safe's contents to debris, Molodkin claims.

The project - called "Dead Man's Switch" - is being backed by Assange's wife Stella, whose husband is awaiting his final appeal against being extradited to the US, where he faces charges under the Espionage Act.

The Wikileaks founder is wanted in America over an alleged conspiracy to obtain and disclose national defence information following the publication of hundreds of thousands of leaked documents relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The 52-year-old denies any wrongdoing.

He has been held in London's Belmarsh prison for almost five years and will have his final appeal heard at the High Court in London on February 20 and 21.

Assange's supporters say he faces 175 years in prison if he is extradited. His lawyer claims the Australian's life "is at risk" if the appeal fails.

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. I have this feeling very strongly now."

The Russian dissident has refused to reveal which pieces of art are inside the safe but says it includes works by Picasso, Rembrandt, Warhol, Jasper Johns, Jannis Kounellis, Robert Rauschenberg, Sarah Lucas, Santiago Sierra, Jake Chapman, and Molodkin himself, among others.

"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," he says.

"We have all the documentation and we photographed all of them."

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

Explaining how the "Dead Man's Switch" works, he says a 24-hour countdown timer must be reset before it reaches zero to prevent the corrosive material from being released.

He says this will be done by "someone close" to Assange confirming he is still alive in prison each day - which will mean the timer can be reactivated.

If Assange is released from prison, the works of art will be returned to their owners, Molodkin adds.

He admits "many collectors are really scared" about the acid going off accidentally but insists the work has been done "very professionally".

Molodkin says 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, says he has provided the Picasso artwork for the safe and has signed a non-disclosure agreement preventing him from revealing which one.

He said his first response when he was asked to take part was: "No way", but he was convinced by Molodkin, who he has known since 2008.

"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," Mr Abbondio told Sky News.

"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."

Artist Franko B says he has provided one of the works which will be kept in the safe.

"It's a beautiful piece... it's one of my best pieces," he told Sky News.

"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.

"It's important. It's a small gesture compared to what Assange did and what he's going through."

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Mrs Assange, who has two children with her husband, told Sky News: "Which is the greater taboo - destroying art or destroying human life?

"Dead Man's Switch is a work of art. Julian's political imprisonment is an act of real terrorism against democracy.

"The true targets here are not just Julian Assange but the public's right to know, and the future of being able to hold power accountable.

"If democracy wins, the art will be preserved - as will Julian's life."

Assange has been held at Belmarsh prison since his arrest in April 2019 after leaving the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he had claimed political asylum in June 2012.

The UK government approved Assange's extradition to the US in June 2022.