Olympic Medalist Feyisa Lilesa Fears for His Life on Return to Ethiopia
The marathon runner made a symbolic protest against the government crackdown in Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa crosses his arms above his head at the men’s marathon during the Rio 2016 Olympic games as a sign of protest against the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on political dissent. ENLARGE
Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa crosses his arms above his head at the men’s marathon during the Rio 2016 Olympic games as a sign of protest against the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on political dissent. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
By MATINA STEVIS
Updated Aug. 22, 2016 11:04 a.m. ET
NAIROBI, Kenya—In a rare act of defiance, an Ethiopian distance runner who finished second in Sunday’s Olympic marathon made a symbolic protest against his government’s crackdown on Oromos, the country’s largest tribe.
As Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line along Rio’s Sambadrome stadium, he crossed his arms above his head to make an X sign, a gesture that has become symbolic of the struggle of the millions of Oromos. Community leaders from the Oromos—who are estimated to number more than a quarter of Ethiopia’s 95 million population—say the Addis Ababa government has trampled on their fundamental rights and launched crackdowns on protests that have left some 1,000 people dead since January. Ethiopia’s government has said it was targeting “anti-peace” elements that were looking to destabilize the country.
In a news conference following his silver medal performance, Mr. Lilesa told reporters that if he returned to Ethiopia, he feared for his life, hinting that he may seek asylum as the Rio Olympics draw to a close.
“The Ethiopian government is killing my people so I stand with all protests anywhere…I raised my hands to support with the Oromo protest,” said Mr. Lilesa, adding that he has family at home, including a wife and two children, and relatives in prison. “If not kill me, they will put me in prison,” he said of what the government might do to him if he returns to Ethiopia.
A spokesman for the Ethiopian government said Mr. Lilesa should not be worried about returning home and that he would be welcomed as a “hero” for his Olympic distinction.
Still, experts think the marathoner is right to be afraid.
“Lilesa would likely be in danger if he were to return home,” said Felix Horne, Ethiopia senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.
“During the course of this protest movement, there have been many cases of Ethiopians living outside of Ethiopia, including in the United States, who spoke out against Ethiopian government abuses. In many of these cases their family members back in Ethiopia were arrested,” he added.
He said that being a prominent athlete wouldn’t protect Mr. Lilesa. “We have spoken to numerous world class athletes who have been arrested in Ethiopia because of their perceived political beliefs, their family connections, or their refusal to support the government,” Mr. Horne added.
The symbolic protest comes at a critical time for community relations in Africa’s second most populous nation, which is a key U.S. ally in the war against terror.
Rights groups say that Oromos have long been financially disadvantaged, but this year tensions with Addis Ababa exploded over plans to use tribal land from the Oromia region for the expansion of the sprawling capital. Months of mass protests led by Oromos were met with deadly crackdowns from Ethiopian security forces. In an effort to muzzle the protests, the government has arrested thousands of protesters and blocked politically sensitive websites, including social media platforms.
The violent clashes contrast with Ethiopia’s reputation as one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, which has boasted double-digit growth rates for years.
The landlocked nation close to Africa’s Horn has closely followed China’s economic and political model, while maintaining strategic alliances with the West on security, particularly in Somalia where it is a major contributor of troops fighting al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab.
But the country’s poor human-rights record has made it an awkward ally for the West. Ethiopia held 10 journalists in jail in 2015 according to press freedom campaigners Reporters Without Borders and was ranked 142nd of 180 in the group’s Press Freedom Index.
“I believe Ethiopia will not fully unleash the potential of its people if journalists are restricted or legitimate opposition groups can’t participate in the campaign process,” U.S. President Barack Obama told a packed plenary at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa during a visit there in July last year.
Write to Matina Stevis at firstname.lastname@example.org