By Kouichi Shirayanagi
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An Ethiopian marathon runner who made a protest gesture against government violence versus members of his tribe at last month’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro told reporters in Washington on Tuesday that he wants to stay in the United States.
Feyisa Lilesa held his arms over his head, wrists crossed, as he finished second in the Olympic marathon, a gesture that he described as being a sign of support for members of his Oromo tribe who have been protesting government plans to reallocate farmland. The protests have been met with violent police action, sparking the country’s worst unrest in more than a decade.
“At the moment, the Ethiopian government is killing and imprisoning its own people,” Lilesa told a news conference. “If this situation continues as is, I have no doubt Ethiopia is staring at the abyss.”
Ethiopian officials were not immediately available to comment on Lilesa’s claims.
The country has long been one of the world’s poorest nations but has industrialized rapidly in the past decade. The government’s plan to reallocate land near the capital proved a thorny issue in a country where many are subsistence farmers.
Authorities scrapped the scheme in January, but protests continued over the detention of opposition demonstrators and rights groups say hundreds have been killed. The government disputes the figures and says illegal protests by “anti-peace forces” have been brought under control.
After his silver medal performance, Lilesa said he was concerned that he would not be safe if he returned home after making the protest gesture, though Ethiopian officials said they were ready to welcome him home.
Speaking through an interpreter, Lilesa on Tuesday told reporters he did not take that offer seriously.
He has since entered the United States on a temporary visa and is considering settling in Arizona or New Mexico, where he has friends, Lilesa told reporters.
But he rejected the idea of changing his nationality, or competing under another nation’s flag.
“I am asking for freedom for my people, not asylum in the United States,” he said. “The government has lost legitimacy, they are just using the power of the gun to maintain control.”
(Reporting by Kouichi Shirayanagi; Editing by Scott Malone and Dan Grebler)