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Julian Assange family campaigns for his release while in Mexico with López Obrador

President López Obrador has offered asylum to Assange to show his disapproval of the U.S. extradition order against the WikiLeaks founder. But the president’s own treatment of the press in Mexico may belie his motives.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Family members of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange held a series of protests and press conferences this week during a visit to Mexico City.

John and Gabriel Shipton, Assange’s father and brother, accepted an invitation from President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to attend Mexico's annual Independence Day military parade on Friday. 

“Your president — which everybody affectionately calls AMLO — we acknowledge his courage and understanding,” said John Shipton to a packed lecture hall of Assange’s supporters at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM) Tuesday.

“That he has begun by saying to the United States that Julian must be free and is welcome in Mexico — this, to us, is pure gold,” he said.

Assange has been in jail in England since April 2019, after a U.K. court found him guilty of jumping bail when he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London in 2012. 

He faces extradition to the United States and up to 175 years in jail for publishing classified documents related to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other government secrets.

In June, Assange’s lawyers sued the CIA, accusing the agency of spying on him while he was in the Ecuadorian embassy. 

“The legal proceedings in the U.K. are just a thin veil that is held in front of Julian’s persecution,” said Gabriel Shipton at Tuesday's conference.

He called the security company hired by the Ecuadorian embassy a “CIA asset” and accused the agency of installing cameras and microphones in the facilities in order to record Assange’s meetings with lawyers, doctors, journalists and other visitors.

“This legal proceeding — you have one side that has all the knowledge of the legally privileged conversations with Julian and his lawyers, all his legal documents, which is no legal proceeding at all,” he said.

Gabriel also extolled the effects of his brother’s work with WikiLeaks on Mexican society, saying that it allowed people to make more informed decisions about their government.

“What Julian published in the cables exposed politicians in Mexico who weren’t actually working for the people, they were working for the United States,” said Gabriel. 

Originally published by the Spanish newspaper El País, the nearly 3,000 documents related to Mexico put the disastrous drug war started by President Felipe Calderón in 2006 in stark relief, revealing that the military initiative was not going as smoothly as both governments had previously tried to make it appear. 

“And it was with that information that the Mexican people have been able to forge themselves a new path,” said Gabriel. 

John and Gabriel Shipton, father and brother of Julian Assange, pose for a photo with supporters who attended a conference they held in Mexico City on Sep. 13, 2022. (Cody Copeland/Courthouse News)

Mexico, however, continues down a path fraught with violence and insecurity, especially for Assange’s colleagues: journalists

It is considered the most dangerous country for the profession outside of active traditional war zones, and López Obrador has been criticized for worsening the situation with his rhetoric toward reporters that find fault his policies and agenda. 

This year has been the deadliest on record for journalists in Mexico, with 16 murdered so far. The federal government’s Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists has been widely condemned for its ineffectiveness.

But while dismissing his critics in the Mexican press as "mercenaries" and "conservative coup-stagers," López Obrador campaigns for Assange's release. He offered Assange asylum in Mexico earlier this year.

“AMLO’s been championing my brother’s cause for years now,” Gabriel said in a phone interview. “He wrote letters to Trump when Trump was doing his pardons at the end of his term in office. He’s called out Biden many times.”

In July, López Obrador said that the United States should “dismantle the Statue of Liberty” if it extradites Assange. 

While he said he could not comment on López Obrador’s treatment of the press or the specific threats journalists face in Mexico, Gabriel said: “Press freedom and freedom of communication is important everywhere, not just reporting on the U.S. or other states. We stand up for freedom of communication, for freedom of speech, for press freedom wherever we go, whether it’s here in Mexico or in the U.K. or in the U.S. or throughout Europe or Australia.”

When asked if he would urge López Obrador to do more to create a safer environment for journalists in the country, John Shipton told Courthouse News: “If we meet AMLO, I would say thank you and congratulations on having courage to defend Julian Assange. As for the rest of your question, it is answered by AMLO himself choosing Julian Assange as a symbol of what must be done to protect journalists.”

Felipe López Veneroni, a political communication professor at UNAM who spoke on the panel at Tuesday’s conference in support of Assange's release, said López Obrador could be using Assange to score political points.

“Yes, there is a political intent, but what is not political?” he told Courthouse News. “It might help the image of AMLO to offer this asylum to Assange, even though he’s not doing much to really help journalists, but it is part of the whole strategy.”

But the president’s motives may not matter in the end. 

“Inviting Assange to come to Mexico might work as a political tactic for the government,“ he said. “But it may also help to create a different consciousness as to what it is to do journalism in Latin America and in Mexico.”

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