The Ethiopian government has assured its Olympic marathon silver medalist, Feyisa Lilesa, of his safety and said he is free to return to the country.
Lilesa had crossed the finish line with his arms raised above his head showing an “X”, a sign depicting the oppression his Oromo people are going through in Ethiopia.
After the Olympics, Lilesa refused to return home, fearing he would be in danger for publicly going against the government.
However, the government has moved to allay his fears, calling him a hero and saying he would forever be welcome back.
The country’s Minister of Communications, Getachew Reda, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that Lilesa does not need any assurances before coming home because the government sees him as a national hero.
“He was selected among many in the field not because he held one political opinion or another, but because he was a great, if not one of the greatest athletes in the field. As you would agree with me, he delivered and delivered big.
“He is our hero. That’s good enough a reason for him to want to come home.
“I don’t think he needs my assurance or that of the prime minister or any such.
“He is more than welcome back home,” Reda told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.
Lilesa, however, said he does not trust the government’s assurance, as no one from the government has got in touch with him.
“They kill and they don’t tell the world they kill, they jail and they don’t tell anybody, so how can I believe that?
“I knew I would be jailed or killed if not, I would [never be allowed] out of that country and allowed to participate in any international competition or race at all.
“I am quite sure those things would happen to me,” the 26 years old Olympian said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that he has not made up his mind where to seek asylum, even though the Brazilian government has given him a temporary leave to stay in the country.
The Ethiopian government has been faced by protest from the Oromiya region, home to more than 25 million Oromos, following plans to appropriate farmlands from the region to the capital Addis Ababa.
Human rights groups have accused the government of using excessive force to quell the protests and said 500 people have been killed in nine months.