NAIROBI — One day after winning silver in the Olympic marathon, Feyisa Lilesa faced a much different decision than other medalists: Would it be safe for him to return home?
As he finished the race Sunday, Lilesa held his arms above his head in an “X,” a sign of protest used against the Ethiopian government for its persecution of the Oromo ethnic group. Lilesa took a brave stand, and at a news conference, it was clear he knew the price he might have to pay.
“If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me,” he said Sunday. “If not kill me, they will put me in prison. I have not decided yet, but maybe I will move to another country,” he said.
On Monday, faced with an avalanche of international attention, the Ethiopian government said they would not punish Lilesa upon his return.
“He is an Ethiopian hero who has done his all to make us all proud — as far as his political views are concerned, he is entitled to them,” said government spokesman Getachew Reda, to The Post, emphasizing that Lilesa had nothing to fear from returning home.
But Ethiopians — particularly members of the diaspora — were deeply concerned for his safety. On one fundraising website, people donated more than $40,000 in 15 hours to Lilesa’s cause.
“Feyisa Lilesa faces persecution if he goes back to Ethiopia and he has decided to seek asylum,” wrote the fundraisers. “Funds are needed to support him and his family in the meantime.”
Lilesa could not be reached and his agent declined to comment.
Despite Reda’s promise that Lilesa would be welcomed back, there has been almost no mention of Lilesa’s stellar marathon performance in the state media’s Olympics reports.
One program led with Ethiopia’s Under 17 team winning a qualifying soccer match against an Egyptian team. Then the broadcaster talked about Ethiopia’s poor showing at the games before finally mentioning the Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge winning the marathon while Lilesa “only” received the silver. He then went on to talk more about the Kenyan winner, with no further mention of Lilesa.
Lilesa’s fear that he will be jailed is borne out in the experiences of other Ethiopians. In 2012, Eskinder Nega, a blogger, was sentenced to 18 years in prison and Woubshet Taye, a journalist, was sentenced to 14 years. Both were convicted on terrorism charges. Human rights groups say Ethiopia frequently uses anti-terror laws to round up its critics. In 2014, the Committee to Protect Journalists declared Ethiopia “the fourth worst jailer of journalists in the world.”
Ethiopia’s runners are among the country’s biggest celebrities. When its first Olympic champion, Abebe Bikila, died, the government called for a national day of mourning. Haile Gebrselassie, another former champion, is one of the country’s richest men. He has flirted several times with a run for parliament or even president.
But younger, less-established runners have complained about persecution at home, seeking asylum when traveling for international meets. Many say that persecution is linked to their Oromo ethnicity.
“I’d rather commit suicide in America than return to Ethiopia,” one runner told The Post last year.
Protests have increased in Ethiopia in recent months, and many of them turned violent after government forces turned their weapons on civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 400 people have been killed since November.
The Oromo people have long complained about being mistreated by the nation’s government, which has recently threatened to reallocate some of the group’s land. But recently, the Oromos have been joined in their protest by other ethnic groups, including the Amharas, some of whom also feel antagonized by the government, which is dominated by the Tigrayan ethnic minority. Those growing protests, experts say, could eventually pose a threat to the government.
Still, Ethiopia is seen by many Western governments as a relative success story, particularly in economic terms. It is one of the fastest growing countries in sub-Saharan Africa with increasingly modern infrastructure, like a new light rail in the capital, Addis Ababa.
The government has its own take on the protests, as Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn told The Guardian in an interview earlier this year.
“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.