As Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia crossed the finish line in his silver-medal marathon run at the Rio Olympics on Sunday, he raised his arms and crossed them in an X, a gesture of protest against his country’s government that he said could get him killed if he returned home.
He is uncertain where he will go next, and what will become of his wife and two children in Ethiopia.
“If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me,” he said at a news conference after the race, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. “If I am not killed, maybe they will put me in prison.”
An accomplished distance runner who has one of the 50 fastest marathon times, he defied an Olympic prohibition on political demonstrations to make his statement, raising his arms again in protest at the race’s medal ceremony. He quickly attracted supporters on social media.
Anti-government protests in Ethiopia, an American ally that has experienced stability and a growing economy over the last decade, have been growing recently, with thousands of people demanding political changes.
Human rights groups say the protests have been met by brutal crackdowns by the government, including the shooting deaths of unarmed protesters. A Human Rights Watch report in June estimated that more than 400 people had been killed in seven months, almost all of them civilians.
Protesters in the Oromo ethnic group, Ethiopia’s largest, say they feel marginalized. The Tigrayan ethnic group makes up about 6 percent of the population but dominates in politics, the military and commerce.
“The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere, as Oromo is my tribe,” Lilesa said, according to The Washington Post. “My relatives are in prison, and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed.”
He told reporters he did not know where he would go next, but mentioned Kenya and the United States as possibilities, according to a video from LetsRun.com.
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