Olympic marathon silver medallist: “If I go back to Ethiopia, they will kill me”

Feyisa Lilesa, the Olympic silver medallist in the men's marathon, crossed the finish line with his arms crossed above his head in protest.

Feyisa Lilesa

Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa, the silver medallist in the Olympic marathon, says that he will be killed if he returns to his home country. The 26-year-old put his arms up in an “X” as he crossed the finish line behind Eliud Kipchoge. The gesture was to express solidarity with the ongoing Oromo protests outside of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.

The Oromo people, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, protested the government extending the municipal boundary of the capital city into villages and towns across Oromia, the country’s largest region. The protests were triggered by the government clearing forest and a soccer field in the early stages of commercial development in the area.

Protests began in November 2015 and more than 400 people have been killed to date, according to Human Rights Watch. Thousands of others have been arrested for protesting the government’s extension of the capital’s boundary. The Oromo people are trying to draw attention to systemic persecution by the government.

Kenenisa Bekele, the greatest long-distance runner of all-time, is Oromo, as is Lilesa, and was left off Ethiopia’s Olympic team. According to NPR, Bekele says that there was “bias” in the team’s selection and his omission.

At the press conference following the race, Lilesa told reporters “If I go back to Ethiopia, they will kill me.” He says that if he is not killed, he will be put in prison or kept in the airport in Addis Ababa. Lilesa performed the same gesture of crossing his arms above his head at the press conference following the men’s marathon.

The gesture is how the Oromo peacefully protest.

Video interview with Lilesa outside of the press conference

In the interview, Lilesa says that he is trying to obtain a visa to avoid returning home to Ethiopia. He wants to stay in Brazil or go to the United States. He has a wife and two children back home in the East African country known as a distance running powerhouse.

Kipchoge, the men’s winner, said “so so sorry for Lilesa,” when asked about Lilesa. “Sad news, shocking these soldiers can still kill everybody.”

Lilesa is planning to protest tonight at the closing ceremony in Rio when the medals for the men’s marathon are awarded. The medal ceremony will take place in front of a packed house at the Olympic stadium as the Rio Olympics will come to a close.

With the closing ceremony being a large draw and televised around the world, there will be a lot of attention on Lilesa when he accepts his silver medal tonight.