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The story behind one brave Olympian's protest

To most spectators of the Olympic men's marathon Sunday, it looked like a standard gesture of jubilation from Ethiopia's Feyisa Lilesa as he crossed the line to win silver.

But to anyone familiar with the political situation in Ethiopia, his arms aloft pose meant something much more brave and important: a defiant stance that could spell danger for him but has drawn international attention to an important issue.

Lilesa made a cross over his head with his forearms as he clocked in at 2 hours, 9 minutes and 54 seconds in front of the world's media, and repeated it again during a press conference after the event. The images were beamed across the globe, and to anyone watching in his home country the message was clear.

It was a gesture of solidarity with the Oromo people, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group numbering some 40 million souls, and a protest against the recent government killing of hundreds of protesters.

Some 400 have been killed since November 2015 by security forces during anti-government protests, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports. The gatherings, which started as a stand against now-abandoned plans to expand Addis Ababa into neighboring Oromo regions, have been met with an increasingly violent response.

Thousands have been injured and tens of thousands arrested in addition to the deaths, HRW says, with many prisoners kicked and beaten. Forces shot indiscriminately into crowds, too. 

“Ethiopian security forces have fired on and killed hundreds of students, farmers, and other peaceful protesters with blatant disregard for human life,” Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch said. “The government should immediately free those wrongfully detained, support a credible, independent investigation, and hold security force members accountable for abuses.”

The agency has posted a graphic video portraying some of the scenes.

Feyisa's gesture was brave for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) prohibits political protests at the games (although they've often struggled to enforce that rule). He could face sanctions once the organization investigates the case and maybe even lose his medal. Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who were expelled from the 1968 summer games after giving black power salutes on the podium, could tell him that.

More seriously, though, are the personal ramifications he could experience from a government increasingly known for harsh retribution. Feyisa is well aware of the dangers; he told reporters he thought he'd likely be killed or imprisoned for his Olympic protest and would probably move to another country.

The government has precedent when it comes to punishing people who speak out. In 2012, anti-government blogger Eskinder Nega was sentenced to 18 years behind bars while journalist Woubshet Taye received 14 years. Both were convicted on terrorism charges.

Feyisa was undeterred, though, and decided to use his moment on the world stage to draw wider attention to the issue. He explained his rationale thusly:

The crossed wrists gesture has been widely used by anti-government protesters as a sign of peaceful resistance, the Associated Press reports, and before that by the Muslim community when it revolted against the government. It's meant to symbolize being handcuffed by security forces.

An Ethiopian government spokesman has insisted that Feyisa will be warmly received back in his home country, telling the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate that he'll have a "heroic welcome." He "will not face any problems for his political stance," Getachew Reda added.

However, the country's state broadcaster EBC didn't re-broadcast images of his gesture and some people watching it live and cheering quickly hushed when they saw the gesture, the AP reports.

Feyisa's gesture draws international attention to an issue that has been brewing in Ethiopia for some time and follows several years of frustration with the government from several minority groups. Both the Oromo people, which make up some 34 percent of the population and the Amhara, who comprise 27 percent, have demonstrated in recent years.

The Oromos feel excluded from the political process and the country's economic development — and opposed the proposed expansion of the transformed capital — while the Amhara have also been engaged in a regional land dispute. 

However, it's been the government's response to these issues that have prompted concern. The ruling government is a close ally of the West, exerts complete control over security forces and faces no opposition in parliament.

Its reaction to any kind of unrest has been swift and arguably disproportionate. In addition to the violent crackdowns, it shut down the internet across the country for two days in early August to try and disrupt the organization of demonstrations.

Lilesa has said he might stay in Brazil or perhaps go to Kenya or the U.S., depending on where he can get a visa. A fundraising page to help him has raised $54,000 already.

Human Rights Watch has said that the international response has been "severely muted." While acknowledging a resolution from the European Parliament and another from the U.S. Senate, the agency says more needs to be done by the international community. 

Lilesa's brave, bold and selfless gesture might just be the catalyst.

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