Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa’s controversial political protest has overshadowed his silver medal finish in the Rio Olympic marathon and left him fearing for his life.
As Lilesa crossed the finish line Sunday, he threw his arms over his head making an “X” in a show of support for members of his Oromo tribe.
The Oromo tribe has been protesting the Ethiopian government’s plans to reallocate farmland surrounding the capital for development. The plans prompted fierce demonstrations last November, sparking the country’s worst unrest in more than a decade.
“The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe,” Lilesa said at a press conference after winning the silver medal, according to The Washington Post. “My relatives are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed.”
Ethiopia has long been one of the world’s poorest nations but has industrialized rapidly in the past decade. But reallocating land is a thorny issue for Ethiopians, many of whom are subsistence farmers. Authorities scrapped the scheme in January, but protests flared again this month over the continued detention of opposition demonstrators.
According to rights groups, hundreds of people have been killed. The government disputes those numbers, saying illegal protests by “anti-peace forces” have been brought under control.
“Oromo is my tribe … Oromo people now protest what is right, for peace, for a place,” Lilesa said.
But Lilesa’s public protest may have put him in grave danger.
“If I go back to Ethiopia, the government will kill me,” Lilesa said after the race. “If not, they will charge me. After that, if they not charge, they will block in the airport in immigration. I want to move to another country and try to go to another country.”
According to The Washington Post, Ethiopia’s state broadcaster did not air Lilesa’s silver medal finish.
The International Olympic Committee is also investigating the incident as political protests are against Olympic rules. According to rule 50 of the Olympic charter, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propoganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
However, government spokesperson Getachew Reda told the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate that Lilesa “will not face any problems for his political stance.”
“After all, this is an athlete who secured a silver medal for his country,” Reda said.
It was not immediately clear whether Lilesa plans to return. He told reporters that he would discuss the issue with family and friends.
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– With files from Reuters and the Associated Press