ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The Ethiopian marathon runner who made an anti-government gesture at the Rio Games while approaching the finish line will not face prosecution upon his return home and will have a “heroic welcome,” a government spokesman said Monday.
Feyisa Lilesa told reporters Sunday that he could be killed or imprisoned if he ever goes back to the East African country. He called protesting inside Ethiopia “very dangerous.”
The silver medalist crossed his wrists in an attempt to draw global attention to deadly protests in his home region, Oromia. He told reporters that Ethiopia’s government is killing his people.
“Oromo is my tribe,” he said. “My relatives are in prison, and if they talk about democratic rights, they are killed.”
Lilesa “will not face any problems for his political stance,” government spokesman Getachew Reda told the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate. “After all, this is an athlete who secured a silver medal for his country.”
It was not immediately clear whether Lilesa plans to return. He told reporters that he would discuss the issue with family and friends.
Ethiopia state broadcaster EBC did not re-broadcast images of Lilesa’s gesture. Some people who were watching live and cheering for Lilesa quickly hushed when they saw his gesture.
The Oromo are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group with about 40 million people. Their region has seen massive anti-government protests since November that activists say have left more than 400 dead.
The protests were ignited by the government’s decision to annex some Oromia land into the capital, Addis Ababa. The plan has been abandoned, but demonstrations calling for wider freedoms have continued.
Ethiopia’s government, a close security ally of the West, is often accused of silencing dissent, even blocking internet access at times.