Notre Dame: The national and architectural significance of the historic cathedral

Alexandra D. Urban/iStock(PARIS) -- There are few monuments that are more distinctly French or more woven into the history of France than Notre Dame Cathedral.

As images of the fire ravaging through the historic church sparked outcries around the globe, people from all walks of life are mourning.

Its place in Catholicism is undisputed, as is its role in French history. It was the site of some of the most notable coronations, including that of Emperor Napoleon.

Beyond the Catholics who attend mass there and the tourists who go to look for a glimpse of Quasimodo, the cathedral represents a landmark in Parisian life that is now likely permanently scarred, if not disfigured or ruined.

“Notre Dame Cathedral is the very soul of Paris but so much more -- it is a touchstone for all that is the best about the world, and a monument to the highest aspirations of artistic achievement that transcends religion and time,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art said in a statement.

“It has survived so much -- from the French Revolution to Nazi occupation—to watch its devastation is excruciating,” the statement continued.

Edward Berenson, a history professor who specializes in French history at New York University, said Notre Dame is "one of the most sacred places, maybe the most sacred place, not only in France but in all of Catholicism. There aren’t that many places that are that old and that connected to the history of the church."

He went on, “Notre Dame has evolved into a place where every French person can feel belongs to them, whether they're religious or not, and I think that’s the really key point: it has national meaning. It’s one of the things that’s associated with France even more so than the Eiffel Tower just because it’s so much older than the Eiffel Tower."

Beyond its religious significance, Notre Dame was the site of many French coronations.

Notre Dame was built over the course of a century, starting in 1160 and ending in 1260, centuries before any country in North America, South America, or Africa was formally founded. The Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889.

The cathedral is located at the center of Ile de la Cite, which is the small island in the middle of the Seine River, which Berenson notes “is the original Paris.”

“Even before Roman times, [that’s] where the first settlements were,” he said of Ile de la Cite.

The cathedral is 130 meters long, which is a little longer than a football field, and 48 meters wide. One of the most distinctive aspects of the cathedral is its height, coming in at 35 meters high, according to the cathedral’s website.

“Architecturally, it was significant at the time it was built because it was built in the Gothic tradition,” said Krupali Krusche, the associate dean of the school of architecture at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, who pointed to the lightness of the walls and the flying buttress support system as two key factors in that style.

She said that the “very thin shell [of the building] and the light buttresses on the shell allow it to reach greater heights than any catholic church previously built.”

Another iconic part of Notre Dame is the stained glass rose windows, which are more than 32 feet in diameter. When asked to name some of the most significant and historic aspects of the cathedral, Berenson immediately cited the windows, calling them “priceless.”

“You would have to think that they would be unbelievably vulnerable to high heat,” Berenson said.

Krusche noted that beyond their beauty, the rose windows “are some of the largest rose windows that you will see around the world” and were unique at the time of their creation.

“Gothic architecture allowed the buildings to be lighter and to go higher, reaching out to the heavens, and then the light allowed it to be having a sense of being able to connect to new knowledge,” Krusche said.

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US gave verbal pledge of no death penalty for Assange: Sources

pabradyphoto/iStock(LONDON) -- After nearly seven years essentially trapped inside Ecuador's embassy in London, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had become an expensive bother to his hosts – they wanted him out.

"They were over him, he was a big nuisance," one senior U.S. official told ABC News. "They were saying ‘This is too much. How do we get him out?’"

But revoking his diplomatic asylum at a time when he was wanted by the United States for his alleged role in hacking and publicizing some of the nation’s most sensitive government secrets would come only after covert, back-channel negotiations, ABC News has learned.

The process of moving Assange out of the Ecuadorian Embassy started a year ago, on March 7, 2018, when the Ecuadorians made their first request to the U.K.: a letter asking for written assurances that the U.K. would not extradite Assange to a country where he could face the death penalty, according to the Ecuadorian Interior Minister Maria Paula Romo.

Ecuador's direct outreach to the U.S. came six months later, through the country’s ambassador to Germany, Manuel Mejia Dalmau, according to U.S. and Ecuadorian officials. Dalmau sought a private "emergency meeting" in Berlin with the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, viewed as one of President Donald Trump’s closest envoys in Europe, the officials said.

At the time, Dalmau said Ecuador was spending between $30,000 and $35,000 per month to house Assange because of his need for extra security and his demands for extra space within the embassy, according to a senior U.S. official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue on the record.

The Latin American country said it has spent $10 million on Assange, including medical expenses, legal counsel, food and laundry since 2012 when Assange first sought asylum from Sweden where he was the subject of a rape investigation – an inquiry he has claimed was politically motivated. Prosecutors in Sweden on Thursday announced they intended to re-open the investigation.

Assange’s presence was also creating a squeeze on the Ecuador’s London facilities, forcing officials there to rent additional offices for an expanding diplomatic staff because Assange took up so much space.

The challenge the Ecuadorans faced in turning him over to British officials, though, was the prospect of Assange facing the death penalty, which Ecuador strongly opposes. Dalmau was blunt in his request, according to U.S. and Ecuadorian officials.

During one meeting, Dalmau asked whether the U.S. would commit to not putting Assange to death, according to a senior US. official.

Grenell then contacted the U.S Justice Department to see if he could provide assurances that the U.S. government would not seek the death penalty. According to the senior U.S. official, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein consented. That enabled Grenell to make the pledge. The agreement between the U.S. and Ecuador was a verbal one, according to a source in the Ecuadoran government.

The State Department declined to comment on this story.

U.S. Justice Department officials would not confirm that the U.S. agreed to take any sentence off the table. But they pointedly noted that the charge the U.S unsealed against Assange does not represent a capital offense and carries a maximum of five years in prison.

The Justice Department has 60 days from the time of the request for extradition to add any charges and would not comment on future charges.

There are only 41 U.S. federal offenses punishable by the death penalty. Nearly all of them have to do with murder or death resulting from some other crime or action. Two notable exceptions are treason and espionage. It is unclear if the U.S. ever contemplated an espionage charge, or if one would have been applicable for the conduct described in the indictment filed under seal in March 2018 in the Eastern District of Virginia. The indictment alleges that Assange in 2010 “agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on United States Department of Defense computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network, a United States government network used for classified documents and communications.”

These government materials included diplomatic cables and disturbing videos of U.S. military forces in Iraq.

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Oil rig workers rescue dog 137 miles off coast of Thailand

Kerrick/iStock(BANGKOK) -- Oil rig workers have rescued a dog found swimming in the Gulf of Thailand some 137 miles offshore.

The workers spotted the pup paddling near the rig Friday afternoon before it swam toward the platform and clung to a pole, Vitisak Payalaw, an offshore planner for Chevron Thailand Exploration and Production Ltd., told ABC News.

They used a rope to pull the shivering dog to safety, Payalaw said, adding that the rescue mission took about 15 minutes.

Photos Payalaw posted to Facebook, showing the workers tending to the soaking wet pup after he was pulled aboard. Once dry and rested, the dog seemed to be content as he posed with the doting workers.

Payalaw wrote that the dog did not make a noise while he clung to the pole and that the workers raced to tie a rope around his neck so he wouldn't be swept away by waves, according to the Bangkok Post. He looked "exhausted" but the workers gave him water and fed him some mineral supplements, Payalaw wrote.

The workers don't know how the dog ended up in the water so far from the coast, speculating that he may have fallen from a boat, Payalaw said. They named him Boonrod, which means “the dog rescued by merit."

Had the winds and waves not been calm that day, the workers may not have seen the dog, Payalaw said.

Boonroad was brought back to shore Monday morning, Payalaw told ABC News. His condition has been improving since he was plucked from the Gulf.

Payalaw plans to adopt the dog when he returns to shore later this month.

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President of Ecuador accuses Julian Assange of using embassy as a 'center for spying' as new footage emerges of his life inside

Jack Taylor/Getty Images(LONDON) -- The president of Ecuador has claimed that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange used the London embassy that was his home for seven years as a “center for spying,” as new footage emerged of the controversial whistleblower’s life inside the embassy.

President Lenin Moreno, in an interview with The Guardian, also said that Assange’s activity inside the embassy violated the terms of his asylum conditions.

Assange was arrested last Thursday.

“Any attempt to destabilize is a reprehensible act for Ecuador, because we are a sovereign nation and respectful of the politics of each country,” Moreno told the newspaper in an email. “It is unfortunate that, from our territory and with the permission of authorities of the previous government, facilities have been provided within the Ecuadorian embassy in London to interfere in processes of other states.”

“We cannot allow our house, the house that opened its doors, to become a center for spying,” he added. “This activity violates asylum conditions. Our decision is not arbitrary but is based on international law.”

Moreno also reiterated the claim made by the Ecuadorean government that Assange’s hygiene and behavior constituted an “aggressive campaign against Ecuador” from inside the embassy.

“He maintained constant improper hygienic behavior throughout his stay, which affected his own health and affecting the internal climate of the diplomatic mission,” Moreno said.

Meanwhile, bizarre footage of Assange skateboarding inside the Ecuadorean embassy has been obtained by the Spanish newspaper El Pais. According to the newspaper, Assange behaved “eccentrically” and security guards who had dealings with Assange between 2012 and 2017 corroborated the claims made regarding his hygiene.

A longtime associate of the whistleblower, however, told ABC News that he had not seen any evidence of lack of hygiene while visiting Assange, casting doubt on the Ecuadorean government’s version of events.

In an interview for ABC News’ “The Investigation” podcast, war documentary filmmaker Sean Langan said life inside the embassy had been “like a gilded cage” for Assange.

Langan spent over 50 hours with Assange inside the embassy last year. He said he did not find an apartment littered with cat dropping or feces on the wall -- as alleged by his Ecuadorian hosts -- but instead Assange lived in "claustrophobic" quarters.

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8 US servicemen killed during World War II honored in Italy on 75th anniversary

Phoebe Natanson/ABC News(ROME) --  Seventy-five years after eight U.S. servicemen were summarily shot at a hermitage on the top of a mount overlooking the Italian village of Montebuono during World War II, local Italian and foreign residents came together to honor them.

The village organized more than 20 four-wheel drive vehicles to take roughly 80 participants, including local dignitaries and NATO representatives from the U.S., U.K. and Canada, to the commemorative ceremony on Saturday. The event included the town band playing the American and Italian national anthems, the unveiling of a new plaque and the laying of wreaths.

The eight servicemen had lived on the run for more than two months after escaping from an unmarked German prisoner-of-war train, which was travelling up through Italy to Germany. It had been repeatedly struck by U.S. B-52s on January 28, 1944, as it was crossing the Allerona Bridge, north of Orvieto in central Italy.

Little was known about the tragedy until documents were uncovered and a monument was erected near the rebuilt bridge in 2012.

Over 1,000 Allied American, Britons, South African and other POWs were on the train locked in about 50 cars being escorted by the retreating Germans. Ten cars were believed to have been destroyed.

It is still not known exactly how many of the POWs died but estimates range from 200 to 600.

Local people who came to help with the wounded described seeing a scene of chaos and horror and a "mountain of corpses," according to The Guardian. Records of great heroism have emerged as POWs helped the wounded or freed others still locked in the rail cars.

Approximately 200 people were wounded and were taken to nearby hospitals. A large number escaped across the hills, some heading south to try to reach the Allied lines, while others hid out waiting for the friendly troops to reach them on their northward thrust.

Some of the escaped POWs were recaptured and put back on trains to Germany and others caught escaping were shot. Historian Jane Kinrade Dethick, who has meticulously researched POWs in Italy, told ABC News that approximately 500 who weren’t wounded or killed escaped.

"Some were captured that day, some were captured after a week, some were captured after three months and some were never captured," she said.

Not much is known about the eight remembered on Saturday -- about how they were hidden at the hermitage and what their plan was to survive.

"All we know is that they were woken up one morning and killed, shot dead by the German military police who had the task of rounding up deserters from the Italian army, partisans and escaped prisoners of war," Kinrade Dethick said. "Why they didn’t arrest them and take them to their command, which is what normally happened, we do not know because there was nobody else there to tell us.

"They didn’t leave us any written records," she added.

Kinrade Dethick said three weeks earlier the group met an American airman whose plane had been shot down. He, too, was on the run, she said.

"They gave him their names and addresses and military numbers and when he joined up with Allied troops he told them about the eight," she added.

Dethick said there are two possibilities: that someone told the Germans about the Americans hiding on the hill, or that the servicemen fell into a net, since German police would scour the area to locate enemies shooting at them.

‘’They were there to capture the POW who may have joined the partisans or the partisans who they called ‘bandits,'" she said. "Basically, they were after anyone who posed a threat to their military."

The organization run by the Vatican may have known the servicemen, and someone in town, perhaps the priest, gave them money to buy food, Dethick believes.

The town continues to remember the soldiers every year and makes an annual pilgrimage to the hermitage. People in the town remembered their parents giving them bread and food and recounted hearing repeated shots from up on the hill.

Nello Lucchetti, an 88-year old local, remembers when he was just 13, climbing up to the hermitage after they were shot and seeing the eight bodies lying in a line on the ground.

Harry Schindler, a 97-year-old UK veteran who landed at Anzio in 1944 and still lives in Italy, came to the ceremony to pay his respects.

"My war is not over,’’ he told ABC News as his book, which recounts life in Italy during World War II, is entitled.

"I am still getting letters from grandchildren of people who fought in the war wanting to know more," he said.

Speaking to the townsfolk after the ceremony, Schindler recounted the immense kindness of the Italians who helped the Allied soldiers.

"The war would have been longer, more horrible, without that partisan help that liberated Italy," he said. "If we really want to remember these eight soldiers, we must explain what war was, not just how horrible war was – the deaths – but about the loss of freedom, how one couldn’t talk freely then and how we must work for peace and freedom.

"We have to make sure that our children will not have to do what we had to do, when the 1st World War ended," he warned. "The whole world said, 'Never again,' but in only 20 years, they were involved in another war."

He added that everyone should be indebted to the eight servicemen and the "thousands of young men who died when they came to Italy to remove a regime."

"We won, and so democracy and freedom returned to Italy," he added. "And when we came to Italy, the Italians, good people, helped us."

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Prostitution coming under scrutiny in Amsterdam, red-light capital of the world

Lukas Schulze - UEFA / Contributor / Getty Images(AMSTERDAM) -- Amsterdam has long been held as the model for the modern sex industry, with prostitution legalized and rebranded as part of the leisure industry.

Until now, that is.

The tide is changing in the Netherlands, a small European country, nestled northwest of Germany on the North Sea, as over 45,000 mostly young people have signed a petition pushing to discourage prostitution by penalizing those who pay for sex -- despite objection from the country's sex workers.

Led by a social media campaign called "I Am Priceless," the petition passed the 40,000 signatures needed to launch a debate by lawmakers in the Dutch Parliament. The signatures will be handed over to Parliament on Tuesday after they are checked to ensure they belong to eligible voters.

"The mood has changed. Buying sex is just wrong," said Natasja Bos, one of two co-founders of the Christian and feminist-inspired protest group Exxpose, which put forward the petition. "The 'Nordic' model of prostitution laws, where it is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold, is in the ascendent."

Prostitution has been legal in the Netherlands since 1999, allowing the buying and selling of sex between "consenting adults."

"We were trying to tell people what is really happening in prostitution because a lot of Dutch people think it is all really happy people choosing to sell sex," Bos told ABC News.

Bos added that there are workers who want to leave the profession who were abused as children, had PTSD symptons, and were addicted to alcohol and drugs.

The number of Dutch sex workers has dropped in recent years with thousands of women, many from Eastern Europe, arriving to Amsterdam’s fabled red-light district, De Wallen, to take their place. De Wallen is a go-to place for international sex tourism, where sex workers offer their services for approximately 50 euros, or $57, officials told ABC News.

Many of the country's sex workers disagree with the petition, though. They're concerned that their employment and their safety will be affected.

"We are totally in shock," said Caroline, a sex worker in Holland, whom ABC News agreed to identify by a pseudonym. "It is a petition against prostitutes, it will change the way we work. We will have to hide, to work in apartments, where we will be alone and vulnerable.

"The petition supporters are failing to distinguish between traditional prostitutes who work freely and the victims of prostitution rings," she explained, adding that they should be helping those who are trafficking victims but not "criminalizing sex."

A fund is to be created to offer sex workers protection, tackle trafficking and deliver short-term residence permits to foreign prostitutes who want to leave the business, a government official told ABC News. The plan is to have it in Parliament by the end of the year.

On Saturday afternoon, prostitutes took to the streets to condemn what they saw as a damper on their business, drawing support from celebrities, intellectuals and ordinary citizens. Some in the crowd described the petition as hypocritical.

"How do you justify allowing women to be prostitutes while forbidding men from turning to them?" said one protester, named Hans. "It is completely incoherent."

In March, the government announced that night-time tours of the red-light district will be banned starting on Jan. 1, 2020.

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American doctor shot 3 times while on mission trip in Haiti is recovering

Courtesy Drew Pasler(MIAMI) --  An American doctor is recovering after he was shot three times during a mission trip to help schoolchildren in Haiti last week.

Dr. Doug Burbella, 58, and a group of missionaries working under Living Water Ministries were on their way to deliver $20,000 worth of computers and servers to a school in Anse-Rouge on April 4. They had been in the country for only four hours when their trucks were suddenly roadblocked by a group of about 150 Haitian men, Burbella said.

One of the men threw a tire in their path and set it ablaze. Then, dozens more began circling and climbing on top of the trucks. The missionaries told ABC News that the ambushers carried every weapon imaginable, from machetes to long rifles and machine guns.

“Then there was a hailstorm of gunfire,” Burbella told ABC News in a phone interview.

Drew Pasler, the driver of the truck transporting Burbella, put the truck in reverse and tried to turn around, but one of the back tires had been shot.

Pasler heard Burbella scream that he had been hit.

“I turned around and saw bullet holes in Doug’s jaw, neck and shoulder,” Pasler told ABC News in a phone interview.

The group of men caught up to the truck and ordered the missionaries out so they could take their belongings. All of the missionaries complied except for Burbella, who played dead in the backseat.

Burbella said the ambushers took his cellphone and some cash before one of the men began aiming a long rifle at his head.

“Just when I thought they were about to finish me off, a man on a motorcycle came out of nowhere and said ‘No,’” Burbella said.

The man on the motorcycle said something in Creole and the ambushers immediately stopped and began returning most of the items that they had taken, Pasler told ABC News.

The missionaries carried Burbella to the second truck and rushed him to a medical facility. Burbella, who was bleeding profusely, told ABC News, "I thought I was going to die." So he asked Pasler to record a message for his wife and son.

“Honey, I just want you to know I love you, and I love you, Michael,” Burbella says in the video obtained by ABC News. “Michael, I want you to be a pilot. Don’t ever give up that dream. Live for the Lord.”

Burbella survived. The day after he received medical treatment in Haiti, he was flown to Delray Medical Center in Florida.

Shelly Weiss, a spokesperson a the medical facility, confirmed to ABC News that Burbella was shot three times — once in the jaw, neck and spine. She confirmed that surgeons were able to remove all three bullets from Burbella.

“The one thing that was most inordinary about this was the Haitian man on the motorcycle,” Pasler said. “He was our angel that day.”

Burbella, who has reunited with his wife and son, said his recovery is expected to last at least four months. He added that the attack will not stop him from completing his mission trip in Haiti.

“I will go wherever the lord tells me to go,” Burbella said. “But I will have to ask my wife.”

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How Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning became intertwined

Jack Taylor/Getty Images(LONDON) -- It's been a little more than nine years since Chelsea Manning first contacted Wikileaks and provided Julian Assange's organization with hundreds of thousands of classified documents and a video of an Apache helicopter strike that killed Iraqi insurgents and two photographers working for Reuters.

Their life stories have been intertwined since the pair first contacted each other over the internet, but they have never met in person.

The story of how Manning and Assange began their relationship is laid out in great detail in the 35-page statement Manning read on Feb. 28, 2013 when she pleaded guilty. Assange's federal indictment released Thursday essentially lays out another layer of the cooperation between Manning and Assange that was not described in her guilty statement.

According to the newly unsealed indictment made public on Thursday, in early March 2010, Assange agreed to help Manning, an Army intelligence analyst, with cracking an administrative password to the military's classified internet system. Getting access to the password would have made it harder for investigators to track Manning as the source of the information being posted by Wikileaks.

None of this was mentioned in Manning's 2013 guilty plea statement though the password request was mentioned during the pre-trial hearings that preceded Manning's court-martial.

Manning's guilty plea statement also presented a narrative of how she came to contact Wilkileaks and eventually Assange.

In late 2009, Manning was a disillusioned Army private first class serving in Baghdad. Her secure work computer gave her access to files detailing the U.S. military's operations in the Middle East region including hundreds of thousands of battlefields reports known as "SigActs," or significant action reports, filed by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq that contained descriptions of mundane military events and firefights.

Manning decided to download the SigActs and during a two-week leave back in the U.S. in late 2009 decided that news organizations needed to see what were in the battlefield reports. In her statement Manning described unsuccessfully trying to get the attention of The New York Times and The Washington Post. After perceiving little interest , though it's not clear Manning spoke to anyone of significance at each paper, the Army private first class decided to contact Wikileaks, an organization that had gained her attention.

Before returning to Iraq, Manning uploaded hundreds of thousands of SigActs to a Wikileaks dropsite, but never heard back. In the statement, Manning described becoming interested in classified State Department diplomatic cables about Iceland and again uploaded to the site. Within hours, the document was posted on the website. It was the first time Manning figured out that Wikileaks must have received the SigActs she had previously sent the organization. Manning then decided to send Wikileaks the Apache video she had come across after a work colleague mentioned its existence.

It was after the posting of that video that Manning was contacted by someone at Wikileaks who went by the name of "Nathaniel" and that was who Manning suspected was Assange. They began an almost daily correspondence over the Jabber networking site.

In March and April 2010, Manning sent Wikileaks 250,000 diplomatic cables, a video of an airstrike in Afghanistan killed civilians and hundreds of assessments about the detainees being held at Guantanamo.

In all, Manning provided Wikileaks with 400,000 Iraq SigAct reports, 90,000 Afghanistan SigAct reports, 250,000 State Department cables and 800 Guantanamo detainee assessment briefs.

Following the guilty plea, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in jail, but her sentence was later commuted by President Barack Obama to seven years.

Since early March, Manning has been held at a jail in Virginia for refusing to testify to a federal grand jury that was investigating Wikileaks.

In a statement issued Thursday, Manning's legal team said the newly unsealed charges against Assange support the view that Manning should not be in jail.

"The indictment against Julian Assange unsealed today was obtained a year to the day before Chelsea appeared before the grand jury and refused to give testimony," the statement said.

"Compelling Chelsea to testify would have been duplicative of evidence already in the possession of the grand jury, and was not needed in order for US Attorneys to obtain an indictment of Mr Assange," the legal team argued. "Since her testimony can no longer contribute to a grand jury investigation, Chelsea's ongoing detention can no longer be seriously alleged to constitute an attempt to coerce her testimony. As continued detention would be purely punitive, we demand Chelsea be released."

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Assange fears being beaten up in US prison, called Trump crowd 'clowns': Visitor

Jack Taylor/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- After nearly seven years holed up inside the cramped Ecuadorian Embassy in London, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is dreading the prospect of violent attacks on him in an American prison, one of his regular visitors told ABC News' "The Investigation" podcast on Thursday.

The interview was conducted one day after Assange's long-anticipated arrest by London police and court appearance on a 2012 bail jumping warrant and U.S. extradition request.

"He did say he was worried that, if he was in a normal American prison, being beaten up,” war documentary filmmaker and former Taliban hostage Sean Langan, who has spent more than 50 hours with Assange in the past year, told ABC News. Langan’s last visit to Assange at the embassy was on March 22, he said.

“And then I said, 'Well, the chances are you're most likely’ -- slightly gallows humor, it didn't make him feel better – ‘you're most likely going to be put into one of those federal Supermax prisons where you won't see a soul," said Langan, an ABC News contributor.


Perhaps most surprising to many who saw his leaks of embarrassing Democratic party emails during the 2016 campaign -- which special counsel Robert Mueller has alleged were hacked by Russian spies in an effort to hurt rival Hillary Clinton's chances -- Assange was often sharply critical of President Donald Trump in casual conversation with a handful of visitors.

Langan says Assange described longtime Trump friend and political adviser Roger Stone and Donald Trump Jr. as intellectually incapable of a conspiracy, much less one that included WikiLeaks or him, and he rejoiced when Mueller recently closed his investigation without indicting him for conspiring with Russian military intelligence to tilt the U.S. election.

"'Those bunch of clowns' -- that was the exact quote -- 'those bunch of clowns couldn't conspire and organize this kind of thing'," Langan recalled Assange telling him. "He certainly did not hold [President Trump] in high regard. He was quite dismissive."

Langan and Vaughan Smith, an Assange confidant and owner of London's Frontline Club, began making "social visits" -- as the Ecuadorian Embassy called them -- with Assange in early November. The pair was among the first people summoned by the controversial publisher of sensitive secrets after Ecuador lifted a ban on his visitors and most of his communications, a loosening of restrictions on Assange that lasted six months in 2018.

Inside, they didn't find an apartment littered with cat droppings or feces on the wall -- as alleged by his Ecuadorian hosts who over time turned against their notorious asylee -- but instead the "claustrophobic" quarters of a man in poor health toughing out intense surveillance of the tiny rooms he has occupied since entering the embassy in August, 2012.

That year, fearing he would extradited to the United States, Assange skipped out on his bail during a rape inquiry in Sweden. The rape inquiry was dropped two years ago but reopened Thursday in the wake of Assange’s removal from the embassy in London, Swedish prosecutors said. Assange has denied the rape allegation.

Assange shared his recollections with Langan in five-hour rolling conversations at a table between two speakers meant to deter electronic surveillance by Ecuador or other countries. One speaker blared symphony music and the other David Bowie's "Space Oddity," Langan told ABC News.

Asked about a controversial November, 2018 report in the Guardian newspaper that Assange had met with Trump 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort -- since convicted on financial crimes related to lobbying in Virginia and in Washington -- he was adamant it never happened.

"He said, 'That's [bull]. Never met him.' So he strongly denied that," Langan said.

The Guardian report has not been matched by any other major news organization or corroborated since it was published.

Langan said that Assange seemed to acknowledge that he had communicated with Guccifer2.0, an online persona Mueller has said in a U.S. indictment was really an amalgam of Russian spies who stole the Democratic party emails and coordinated with WikiLeaks to leak them, but said that he believes Assange was unaware of Guccifer 2.0’s true identity.

Langan said that Assange complained to him that other news outlets were communicating with Guccifer2.0 too but the U.S. government was unfairly picking on him.

"I took it to be a non-denial denial," Langan said.

With his arrest and the prospect of a trial in the U.S. for computer intrusion relating to WikiLeaks document dumps of military and intelligence secrets almost a decade ago, Langan said Assange now realizes "that he could face the rest of his life in isolation."

The idea of further confinement weighs on Assange, he said.

"You can see the toll it is taking on him,” Langan added. "It's an unpleasant thing to see in any man."

He is no doubt glad to be out of the embassy, however, Langan added.

"It's like a gilded cage. But a cage is a cage is a cage," said Langan.

Langan said Assange expressed frustration with what he described as false news reports that claimed Assange wore smelly socks and did not care for the cat his kids gave to him as a gift.

"That really hurt him," Langan recounted.

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Holy Stairs believed to have been climbed by Jesus unveiled in Rome

Franco Origlia/Getty Images(ROME) -- After more than a year of restoration, the 28 steps that make up the "Scala Sancta," or Holy Stairs, of the Pontifical Shrine in Rome were unveiled on Thursday, just in time for the thousands of people who will flock to Rome and the Vatican for Easter.

The steps were believed to be part of Pontius Pilate’s palace in Jerusalem and are the same steps Jesus climbed before being tried by the Roman governor and sentenced to crucifixion.

It is believed that Emperor Constantine's mother, St. Helena, brought the steps from Jerusalem to Rome in the fourth century once Christianity became the Roman Empire's main religion. They are now housed in a building that contains part of the old papal Lateran Palace, across from the Basilica of St. John the Lateran in Rome.

Since the Middle Ages, when pilgrims started flocking to Rome to pray in churches and venerate relics, millions of faithful have made the traditional penitential ascent up the stairs on their knees as they pray and meditate on Christ’s passion.

The stairs had not been seen without their wooden protection in almost 300 years.

"The newly restored frescoes help the faithful connect with the Holy history," Father Francesco Guerra said.

For the next two months, until Pentecost, pilgrims will be able to ascend the bare marble Holy Stairs on their knees -- since 1723, they had been encased in walnut wood for protection.

Before Thursday's unveiling ceremony, the Vatican Museum restorers described how moving it was to uncover the original stairs, which contain three small bronze crosses embedded in the marble and spots believed to be stained by Jesus’ blood.

The restorers also found large furrows running along each step, which they deduced were caused by the toes of pilgrims’ shoes as they knelt and rose to move up to the next step over the course of centuries.

Along with the strata of dust and dirt, piles of notes, photos, coins and votive offerings were uncovered since the stairs' last cleaning in the 1950s. Pilgrims had shoved them under the wooden casing as they knelt.

The restoration of the entire sanctuary, not just the stairs, started six years ago and should be completed by summer 2020. Over 18,000 square feet of dingy-looking frescoes that decorate the stairs and the chapels in the building were carefully cleaned of grime to reveal them in their original splendor. Restorers uncovered stories of devotion in the ancient graffiti they found on the frescoes, like the slave who came to give thanks for being free of his Turkish master.

After Italian Cardinal Angelo De Donatis, vicar general of Rome, blessed the newly unveiled steps, a throng of faithful pushed forward to kneel and kiss the first step.

Others were handed plastic shoe-covers to protect the marble and be the first to start the ascent on their knees.

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