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Artist threatens to destroy Picasso and Warhol masterpieces with acid if Julian Assange dies behind bars

Julian Assange remains in Belmarsh prison in south-east London (PA) (PA Archive)
Julian Assange remains in Belmarsh prison in south-east London (PA) (PA Archive)

An artist has threatened to destroy artworks by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol with acid if Julian Assange dies in prison.

Russian artist Andrei Molodkin claims to have gathered 16 masterpieces worth more than £42m and says he will destroy with an “extremely corrosive” substance strong enough to turn the art into debris.

Mr Molodkin says he will trigger the chemical reaction within a 29-tonne safe if the Wikileaks founder dies in prison where he is currently being held.

The project is called ‘Dead Man’s Switch’ and comes ahead of the Wikileaks founder’s final appeal against being extradited to the United States to face charges under the Espionage Act.

Assange, 51, has been held in London’s high security Belmarsh Prison for almost five years while US authorities seek to extradite him to face trial on espionage charges linked to the publication of hundreds of thousands of documents relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

A giant billboard in Melbourne calls for the release of the WikiLeaks founder (AFP via Getty Images)
A giant billboard in Melbourne calls for the release of the WikiLeaks founder (AFP via Getty Images)

The Wikileaks founder is wanted on 18 charges by the US government, which accuses him of conspiring to hack into military databases to acquire sensitive information. He denies any wrongdoing and will have his final appeal heard in the High Court on 20 and 21 February.

He could face a substantial prison sentence if he is extradited and the campaign against it is supported by human rights and journalists organisations across the world.

Speaking about the project, Mr 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.”

Artist Andrei Molodkin plans to destroy 16 pieces of art if Assange dies in prison
Artist Andrei Molodkin plans to destroy 16 pieces of art if Assange dies in prison

He added that he would feel “no emotion” if the art was destroyed because “freedom is much more important”.

Mr Molodkin said he would not be revealing which pieces of art were in the safe but claimed it included big names such as Picasso, Rembrandt, Warhol, Jasper Johns, Jannis Kounellis and himself. The safe is being kept at the artist’s studio in the south of France but may be moved to a museum.

The ‘switch’ has a 24-hour countdown timer that must be reset before it reaches zero to prevent a pneumatic pump connecting two white barrels - one with acid powder and the other with an accelerator - releasing a chemical reaction.

The timer will be reset by “someone close” to Assange as they confirm he is still alive each day. If Assange is released alive, the art will be returned to their owners.

The project has been backed by Assange’s wife, Stella (WikiLeaks/PA)
The project has been backed by Assange’s wife, Stella (WikiLeaks/PA)

The project has been backed by Assange’s wife, Stella, who told the broadcaster: “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. If democracy wins, the art will be preserved - as will Julian’s life.”

Art gallery owner Giampaolo Abbondio claims to have provided the Picasso artwork for the safe after he was convinced by Mr Molodkin.

“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.

“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.”