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

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.

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

Hailemariam DesalegnIn 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 neighbouring Somalia and a centre of relative stability in fragile east Africa. Criticism from Washington or European powers of any human rights abuses has been muted.