Olympic runner shows rare defiance against Ethiopia’s government as world looks on
With the world looking on, Feyisa raised his arms above his head and crossed his wrists, which is a symbol of resistance in Ethiopia.
“The Ethiopian government is killing my people so I stand with all protests anywhere…I raised my hands to support with the Oromo protest,” Feyisa told reporters, referring to his ethnic group, which is the most populous in the country.
After finishing the marathon in second place with a time of 2 hours, 9 minutes and 54 seconds, he was heralded by Ethiopians around the world as a champion of freedom.
Waves of protests are sweeping across Ethiopia as people from the country’s largest ethnic groups – the Oromo and Amhara – march against the Tigrayan dominated government. Protesters say the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Party, which holds every seat in parliament, is taking their land and unlawfully detaining demonstrators.
After months of protests, the government said in January that it had scrapped plans to expand Addis Ababa into surrounding farmland owned mostly by the Oromo group, to which Lilesa belongs and which makes up more than a third of the country’s 95 million-strong population.
Human rights groups say as many as 1,000 protesters have been killed by security services since the demonstrations began in November last year.
The athlete said his wife and two children are living in Ethiopia and he has some relatives who have been jailed. He said he feared for his life after his public display. “If not kill me, they will put me in prison.”
A spokeswoman for the Ethiopian government told The Africa Report: “Mr. Feyisa has nothing to fear and can return to Ethiopia. He has a right, guaranteed by the Ethiopian constitution, to free speech, and so can say whatever he likes.”
On Monday, members of the Ethiopian diaspora launched a crowd-funding drive that aimed to raise $40,000 for Lilesa.
Ethiopia’s ruling party has said anti-government protesters have some “legitimate concerns”, including bad governance and youth unemployment. But the government maintains that the demonstrations have been taken over by “destructive elements” that are not representative of the entire population.
“The legitimate concerns of people have been usurped by political forces who assumed that the demands of the people have created a perfect moment to grab power by unconditional means,” said state minister for foreign affairs Taye Atske-Selassie.
The US and other international actors have spoken out against rights abuses carried out by the Ethiopian government, which is a key ally in the war against Islamist group al-Shabaab in neighbouring Somalia.
Tom Malinowski, the US secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, said: “When thousands of people, in dozens of locations, in multiple regions come out on the streets to ask for a bigger say in the decisions that affect their lives, this cannot be dismissed as the handiwork of external enemies.”
Malinowski added: “Security forces have continued to use excessive force to prevent Ethiopians from congregating peacefully, killing and injuring many people and arresting thousands. We believe thousands of Ethiopians remain in detention for alleged involvement in the protests – in most cases without having been brought before a court, provided access to legal counsel, or formally charged with a crime.”
• This article was updated on 23 August to include a statement from the Ethiopian government.