Lilesa said his fellow athletes at the Olympic village met him with tears, thankful that he had brought their plight to the world stage.

By Justin Salhani (ThinkProgress) |

Feyisa Lilesa knew, when he was selected to represent Ethiopia at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, he had to speak out. Months later, as he crossed the finish line and placed second in the men’s marathon competition, he clenched his fists and raised and crossed his arms to form an ‘X’ in a symbol of peaceful defiance.

Lilesa’s gesture was simple but powerful. It was a symbol adopted by Ethiopians peacefully protesting the government’s expansion of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. Government forces responded to peaceful protests with bullets, beatings, and detentions. Rights groups report that around 500 people from the Amhara and Oromia regions have been killed, while Lilesa said the number is over 1000.

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“If I go back to Ethiopia, maybe they will kill me,” Lilesa, 26, told reporters after his race. A government official has since said he would be welcomed back to the country, but Lilesa fears imprisonment and lacks trust in the Ethiopian government.

Lilesa returned to the Olympic village briefly. He said his fellow athletes met him with tears, thankful that he had brought their plight to the world stage. The Ethiopian federation members did not openly support Lilesa but gave him indirect signals of support for fear of government retribution.

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