Ethiopian Olympian’s family warn against Addis return

Days after the Ethiopian government said they would not bar runner Feyisa Lilesa from returning to the country after he made an anti-government gesture upon finishing second in the Olympic marathon on Sunday (August 21), his family have warned him to stay away.

Lilesa held his arms over his head, wrists crossed, as he strode across the finish line to claim the silver medal in Rio de Janeiro – mimicking a sign taken up by protesters in the Horn of Africa country’s Oromiya region.

The province has been riven by unrest for months over land rights and allegations of human rights violations. After the race, Lilesa said he feared he would face consequences if he returned home.

His mother, Biritu Fulasa, agreed.

“Do you really believe what the government is saying? I don’t believe so. He should stay there. I would have liked him to come but what can I do? I was crying too much the other day but now I am feeling better. I want him to stay there. I wish him well,” she said.

In June, Human Rights Watch said at least 400 demonstrators were killed by security forces during months-long protests triggered by government plans to include some parts of Oromiya within the capital Addis Ababa’s limits.

Though that scheme has subsequently been shelved, unrest flared again this month after protesters took to the streets demanding an end to rights abuses such as the release of jailed dissidents.

Feyisa’s wife Iftu Mulisa said she was very scared for her entire family’s security after the gesture but added that she was not surprised with her husband’s action due to his bitterness of seeing people being beaten, arrested while others were killed.

“I was very scared at the time but I wasn’t surprised because I know him. He was burning inside when he sees on the social media all these dead bodies; people being beaten and people being arrested. So I was not surprised because I know he had a lot of anger inside,” said Feyisa’s wife Iftu Mulisa.

The government disputes the death toll and says the protests are being staged illegally, stoked by rebel groups and overseas-based dissidents.

Feyisa’s daughter Soko Feyisa wore her father’s gold medal from the Tokyo marathon this year, and said she misses her father and wanted to know his whereabouts.

The rest of Ethiopia’s Olympics squad arrived in Addis Ababa on Tuesday (August 23), having won one gold, two silvers and five bronze medals in Brazil.

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