Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa crossed his arms above his head at the finish line of the Men’s Marathon event as a protest against the Ethiopian government’s crackdown on political dissent
When Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa raised his hands and crossed his wrists above his head in a defiant political gesture as he approached the finish line at the Rio Olympic marathon, it put the spotlight on his home nation.
“Crossing my wrists in Rio has already had a great impact on my life,”
“I am now separated from my dear mother, my supportive wife and my precious children in Ethiopia who I miss dearly.”
With his simple gesture, Lilesa joined a long list of athletes who have used the global sports stage to protest what they describe as injustices in their home countries.
In his case, the crossed wrists symbolized the handcuffs of political prisoners and dissidents in Ethiopia, who he said have been imprisoned for protesting against the taking and selling of land belonging to the Oromo people to foreign investors.
The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group and make up at least a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million people. But they have been marginalized for decades, with tensions rising recently as the government promoted development that took over Oromo farmland.
“In November, the government forced farmers off their land and we began to peacefully protest. Since then, human rights organizations say around 500 people are dead. I say that over 1,000 have died; this includes at least 12 people that I know from my home district of Jaldu in Oromia,”
CNN has not been able to independently verify the claim that 1,000 people have been killed since protests began.
Last month, Ethiopia’s Communications Minister Getachew Reda described the figure of 1,000 as “nonsense” but he would not offer a figure for the number of protesters who have died.
“This game of numbers has no merit,” he said at the time.
CNN has tried to contact the Ethiopian government by telephone several times for further comment on these allegations but those attempts have not been successful.
Previously, Reda said Ethiopia’s security response to the protests is standard police protocol ,to disperse “rioters.” Some protesters have been armed with guns and hand grenades, he said.
As for Lilesa, Reda said he was “entitled to make” a “political statement. That is his right,” Reda said.
“It’s not about holding one political view or another.”
Lilesa, who says his family named is correctly spelled as Lelisa but appears differently on his passport and in reporting of his Rio political gesture, spoke of his anguish at what he feared was happening at home.
“Families do not know what happened to their sons and daughters after they were taken by the army and police. We all know someone who has been killed or disappeared,” Lilesa told CNN in an email interview.