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Published On: Tue, Aug 23rd, 2016

Ethiopia says protesting Olympian Feyisa Lilesa will be safe

NAIROBI — Ethiopia said Olympic marathon runner Feyisa Lilesa would receive a hero’s welcome home and didn’t need to fear for his safety despite the silver medalist’s public act of protest against a government crackdown in his home region.

As Lilesa crossed the finish line in Rio on Sunday, he crossed his arms above his head to make an X sign, a gesture that has become emblematic of the struggle of the millions of Oromos, the Ethiopian distance runner’s tribe and the country’s largest.

After his second-place finish, he told reporters he feared for his life if he returned home, hinting he might seek asylum as the Rio Olympics drew to a close.

“The Ethiopian government is killing my people, so I stand with all protests anywhere…. I raised my hands to support with the Oromo protest.”

He said he had family at home, including a wife and two children, and relatives in prison. “If not kill me, they will put me in prison,” he said.

Community leaders from the tribe — estimated to account for more than a quarter of Ethiopia’s 95-million population — say the Addis Ababa government has trampled on their fundamental rights and launched crackdowns on protests that have left about 1,000 people dead since January.

Ethiopia’s government has said it is targeting “anti-peace” elements looking to destabilise the country.

A spokesman for the Ethiopian government said Monday that Lilesa should not be worried about returning home and that he would be welcomed as a hero for his Olympic distinction.

Still, rights experts think the marathoner is right to be afraid. “Lilesa would likely be in danger if he were to return home,” said Felix Horne, Ethiopia senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“During the course of this protest movement, there have been many cases of Ethiopians living outside of Ethiopia, including in the US, who spoke out against Ethiopian government abuses. In many of these cases their family members back in Ethiopia were arrested,” he said.

Horne said being a prominent athlete would not protect Lilesa. “We have spoken to numerous world-class athletes who have been arrested in Ethiopia because of their perceived political beliefs, their family connections or their refusal to support the government,” he said.

The symbolic protest comes at a critical time for community relations in Africa’s second-most populous nation, which is a US ally in the war against terrorism.

Rights groups say Oromos have long been financially disadvantaged. But this year, tension with the government in Addis Ababa exploded over plans to use tribal land from the Oromia region for the expansion of the sprawling capital.

Months of mass protests led by Oromos were met with deadly crackdowns from Ethiopian security forces. To muzzle the protests, the government has arrested thousands of protesters and blocked politically sensitive websites, including social media platforms.

The violent clashes contrast with Ethiopia’s reputation as one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, which has boasted double-digit growth rates for years.

The landlocked nation close to Africa’s Horn has closely followed China’s economic and political model, while maintaining strategic alliances with the West on security, particularly in Somalia, where it is a major contributor of troops fighting al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab.

But the country’s poor human rights record has made it an awkward ally for the West. Ethiopia held 10 journalists in jail in 2015, according to press freedom campaigners Reporters Without Borders, and was ranked 142nd of 180 in the group’s press freedom index.

“I believe Ethiopia will not fully unleash the potential of its people if journalists are restricted or legitimate opposition groups can’t participate in the campaign process,” US President Barack Obama told a packed plenary at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa during a visit there in July last year.