Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa (silver) crosses the finish line of the Men's Marathon athletics event during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro on August 21, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Adrian DENNISADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty ImagesAn Ethiopian Olympian marathon runner who said he wanted to seek asylum after making a symbolic protest against his country’s repressive regime during the Olympics, has arrived in the US.
Feyisa Lilesa claimed silver in the marathon event in Rio last month and crossed the line with his arms crossed over his head in a solidarity with Oromo activists, who are staging protests in Ethiopia. The 26-year-old later repeated the gesture during the race’s medal ceremony and at a press conference, saying he was afraid to go back to his homeland.
On Friday the BBC reported that he had arrived in the US. The Ethiopian government has been accused by Amnesty International and other rights groups of brutally cracking down on dissent and Lilesa failed to return to the country last month, despite assurances from the country’s Information Minister Getachew Red that he had nothing to fear and would be welcomed home as a hero.
However when Ethiopian sports officials congratulated the team, but made no mention of Lilesa’s silver medal achievement – one of only eight medals won by the country’s team.
Speaking after the race, Feyisa said: “If not kill me, the will put me in prison. I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country”.
His family later said the runner wanted to claim asylum in the US and a crowdfunding campaign, which has raised £113,000, was set up to pay his legal fees and support his family in Ethiopia.
The runner is from Oromia – home to the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo people – where in November 2015 more than 400 people were killed by security forces.
The clashes came amid complaints over social and political marginalisation by the 35 million-strong Oromo community, Human Rights Watch reported.
A spokesperson for the Ethiopian embassy in London, which has reportedly been targeted by Oromo protesters in recent days. told i that the claimed death toll was “inaccurate” .
In recent weeks violence has spread to the Amhara region amid increasing instability, and locals have been shaving their heads as a sign of solidarity with jailed opposition leaders.