Rio 2016 medalist Feyisa Lilesa fails to return to Ethiopia after anti-government Olympic protest

The runner says he could be killed or imprisoned if he returns to Ethiopia 

Maya Oppenheim
Wednesday 24 August 2016 09:22
Ethiopian marathon runner could go to jail for anti-government protest

The Ethiopian silver medalist marathoner who made an anti-government gesture as he crossed the finish line at the Rio Olympics has failed to return to his home country.

Feyisa Lilesa, 26, was not on board the plane transporting Ethiopia’s Olympics team which landed in the county on Monday night, according to an AFP journalist in Addis Ababa airport.

Ethiopian sports officials failed to mention Lilesa’s silver medal while they applauded team members for their performances, according to the report, despite his achievement being just one of eight medals won by their country. They are also said to have refused to answer any questions about Lilesa.

The athlete’s defiant gesture of crossing his arms in an “X” was a show of solidarity with the Oromo protests. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 400 people have been killed by Ethiopian security forces during anti-government protests carried out by the Oromo people since November 2015.

Lilesa is from Oromia, an area home to most of Ethiopia's 35 million Oromo people - one of the country’s largest ethnic groups. The Oromo people have been using the same cross gesture which Lilesa used for months.

After the marathon, Lilesa told reporters that if he returned to Ethiopia he could be killed or imprisoned.

Ethiopian officials assured Lilesa would not be barred from entering the country or punished for his protest.

Earlier on Monday, Lilesa's agent Federico Rosa, who is based in Italy and has been the athlete’s agent for three years, told AFP the athlete would not return home and would instead stay in Brazil despite his immigration status being unclear.

"I don’t think that there is any way that he will [go back to Ethiopia],” Rosa said. “There are many people who say that it would not be good for him to go back.”

Lilesa has been commended for drawing attention to the struggle of the Oromo people and declared a hero on social media. As of Wednesday morning, nearly $120,000 had been raised for him via a crowdfunding website. “We assure you all the money collected will go to support this Oromo/Ethiopian hero,” the site said.

Lilesa won silver in Sunday's marathon, finishing the 26-mile race in two hours, nine minutes and 54 seconds. At a news conference following the race, he reiterated his message of protest, saying that he stood in solidarity with the Oromo people.

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