LONDON – The dissident Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei staged a silent protest outside London's Old Bailey court on Monday against the possible extradition of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to the United States, where he is wanted on an array of espionage charges.

The court, meanwhile, heard that Assange, if convicted in the U.S., could end up spending the rest of his life in the federal Supermax prison in Florence, Colo. The facility is home to Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, 1993 World Trade Center mastermind Ramzi Yousef and Zacarias Moussaoui, the only man ever convicted in a U.S. court for a role in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Ai, who visited Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London where he was holed up for seven years until April 2019 and subsequently at Britain's Belmarsh high security prison, said the authorities have a responsibility to protect press freedom.

"He is prepared to fight, but this is not fair to him," he said. "Free him, let him be a free man."

U.S. prosecutors have indicted Assange on 17 espionage charges and one charge of computer misuse over WikiLeaks' publication of secret U.S. military documents a decade ago. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 175 years.

As well as arguing that the extradition poses a threat to his life, his defense team says that Assange is a journalist and entitled to First Amendment protections for the publication of leaked documents that exposed U.S. military wrongdoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"He truly represents a core value of why we are free — because we have freedom of the press," Ai said. "We need a lot of protesting, and it can take any form. I'm an artist. If I cannot use my art, it's very limited, then I'd rather just be silent."

Associated Press