Ethiopian Olympic marathoner might have put his life in danger with protest gesture


Like many other Olympic athletes in the past, Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa made a gesture Sunday night when he crossed the finish line in Rio.

But simply making the sign with his arms could have cost the silver medalist his freedom or even his life if he returns home.

He told reporters after the race: "I was protesting for my people. ... If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me. If I am not killed, maybe they will put me in prison."

Crossing one's arms over one's head as Lilesa did is a sign used by members of his Oromo tribe to protest the Ethiopian government.

Tensions between the Oromo and the government have been on the rise since last November, when the government announced plans to reallocate Oromo farmland for development.

The announcement sparked intense protests across the nation that lasted for months. 

Officials scrapped the idea in January, but demonstrations flared up once again in recent weeks over protesters who are still being detained. 

And according to a Human Rights Watch report, the government is using violence to stop the protests. The group says more than 400 people have been killed and thousands more injured.

"Oromo is my tribe ... Oromo people now protest (for) what is right, for peace, for a place," Lilesa said in a news conference after his medal ceremony.

Lilesa also said he has family members who are in prison, and "if they talk about democratic rights they are killed."

Lilesa, a father of two, said that because of the violence in his home country, he can't return to Ethiopia after the Olympics. He said he might stay in Brazil or go to Kenya or the U.S. if he can.

An Ethiopian government spokesman said Monday that Lilesa could return to the country and would receive "a heroic welcome," the Associated Press reported.

It's unclear if his post-race gesture will affect his win in Rio. The Olympics committee has stripped athletes of their medals over political statements in the past.


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