Ethiopian Olympic medallist seeks asylum after marathon protest

Feyisa Lilesa, who made arm gesture of support for his Oromo tribe as he finished race in Rio, says he fears going home

The Guardian | August 23, 2016

Fayissa Lellisaa
An Olympic silver medallist from Ethiopia is seeking asylum overseas after making a gesture of protest as he crossed the finishing line in the men’s marathon in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday.

Hundreds of millions of people watched Feyisa Lilesa hold his arms over his head, wrists crossed, in support of members of his Oromo tribe in the east African nation.

“It is a very dangerous situation for the Oromo people in Ethiopia. In nine months more than 1,000 people died in protests,” Lilesa told reporters after the race.

The runner said he now feared detention or death if he returned home.

“They will kill me. I haven’t another visa. Maybe I stay here. If I can get visa I can go to America,” the 26-year-old said.

Lilesa’s protest prompted an outpouring of support on social media, while a crowdfunded effort to raise money to help him find a home outside Ethiopia had received nearly $40,000 (£30,000) in donations within hours.

Olympic athletes are prohibited from making political statements during the Games, but it appears unlikely Lilesa will face any sanctions from sport authorities.

Ethiopia has long been one of the world’s poorest nations but has experienced rapid industrialisation in the past decade. Authorities have been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses and of discrimination against the Oromo, the country’s largest ethnic group, comprising about 25% of the country’s 100m population.

Plans to allocate land surrounding the capital, Addis Ababa, for development prompted fierce demonstrations from members of the tribe in November. Many of those who would have been displaced by the new scheme were Oromo.

Authorities scrapped the scheme in January, but protests spread and continued for months, in the country’s worst unrest in more than a decade.

Several rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported that up to 400 have been killed in clashes between security forces and protesters.

In the wake of the violence, the United Nations urged Ethiopia to allow international observers in to the worst hit parts of the country.

“Oromo is my tribe … Oromo people now protest what is right, for peace, for a place,” Lilesa told reporters after winning his silver medal, adding that he feared his wife and two children might already have been arrested.

“Maybe I move to another country … you get the freedom if you support only the government. You cannot work without that.”

The government disputes the allegations of human rights violations and says illegal protests by “anti-peace forces” have been brought under control.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, described Ethiopia as an island of stability. Photograph: Stringer/Reuters

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, Ethiopia’s prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, described Ethiopia as an island of stability within the troubled Horn of Africa region.

“We have clearly identified why this protest has come about: unemployment and lack of good governance. Building democratic culture will take some time. But we are on the right track. It’s improving,” Desalegn said.

Any sign of unrest is closely watched in Ethiopia with frequent detentions of alleged dissidents and pressure on the media. Ethiopia is 142nd of 180 in the Press Freedom Index compiled by the Reporters Without Borders campaign group.

In elections last May, Ethiopia’s ruling coalition and allied parties won all 547 seats in the federal parliament and 100% of legislative positions in nine regional councils.

The nation is seen in the west as a key ally in the campaign against Islamic militants from the al-Shabaab movement in neighboring Somalia and a center of relative stability in fragile east Africa. Criticism from Washington or European powers of any human rights abuses has been muted.

2 Responses to Ethiopian Olympic medallist seeks asylum after marathon protest

  1. ya'i kilo August 23, 2016 at 7:39 pm #

    The report in a sense described mildly the suffering of people in Ethiopia in general and real severe suppression in Oromia. The characterization of Oromo as a tribe is arguably wrong as there are different social hirarchy in the make up of Oromo popullation. I leave that to someone who is realy knowlegable on the matter.
    Neither Feyisa nor any one else know the extent of the torture and killing of Oromo people by minority rebel leaders turned leaders from Tigray , North Ethiopia. Hope the UN get access and investigate to bring the bloody handed criminals acting as government

  2. muqdisho man August 23, 2016 at 10:16 pm #

    all these mess was work of evil white man.

    there are not only oromo or somalis or ather ethiopian people who are live with hard time, but rest of african people are live with this harsh colonasition system suported
    by white KKK.

    just day ago stupid kerry was in his capital colony of nairobi, forget that he will condem or say anything about what terrorist tplf doing in ethiopia, he even not mentioned name of ethiopia. i am not even surprised that,

    because i knew who kerry is or who is america, all we knew everyone knews, they are nazy pure kkk .these people called america or kerry or western, they are pure KKK .what a looser nazy.
    i have to say thanks to allah/god that he send china to safe innocent african people against this KKK nazy predator.

    may be you are dissagree with me, but i think china doing lots of thinks now to safe innocent african people from these kkkk.

    they (white nazy kkk) dont agree even that the african people or black people are exist or live.

    they just want nazy white people live this world.

    what a kkk nazy loosers.

    but who they are anyway?

    i cannot explain now who are those white skinny head nazy loosers,

    but when i read their history or i made some search,
    they called, Anglosexan ayran losers or western what ever you called them

    ,the people who lost battles against assian tribes in 500/1000 BC.

    the shorty explain,

    these white nazy migrated europe or western europe, because they were fleed or ran away from ather tribes, like the assian or indo chinese tribes or even old egyptian people, the hamatic kingdom.they went europe as a refugee,loool. and they are now power full?
    what a funny.

    because europe is dirty place not sun not good weather or warm weather that humans can live in the stone age.

    so they go there as a refugee.

    that is why they even lost true natural human clour, wich was black or brown.

    white clour is not ture human clour its is afected clour, because of iceage and harsh bad weather they sufered,during time that they are fleeing from ather tribes.

    humans where used to be. live in africa or assia,were live can exist.

    but white kkk cannot lived there,why?

    because they where ran or fleed from none europian tribes. what a loosers.

    those assian and hamatic tribes they pushed and pushed west europe and unhabitat land to the kkk aryan tribes,in allmost 10.000.BC.

    so now, after that time they trying to fool us now?

    no, they cannot.

    i am sure we are allready go back to 10.000.BC . again.

    and that is sing of how china confranting them from every cona of africa,allready started in east africa.

    what a nazy kkk losers.

    muqdisho man.

    proud to be cushitic and

    proud to be old cushitic and hamatic tribe.

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