Ethiopian censured after protest gesture

Ethiopia's Tamiru Demisse, silver medallist in the men's T13 1,500m, crosses his arms in a symbol of defiance against the country's government.
Ethiopia's Tamiru Demisse, silver medallist in the men's T13 1,500m, crosses his arms in a symbol of defiance against the country's government. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

RIO DE JANEIRO • The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) reprimanded a visually impaired Ethiopian runner on Monday for crossing his arms above his head at the finish line, a protest against alleged rights abuses by his government.

The protest was made by Tamiru Demisse, the silver medallist in the men's 1,500m T13 category - for visually impaired runners - in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday. It came after fellow Ethiopian runner Feyisa Lilesa made headlines during the Olympics last month when he made a similar protest as he claimed silver in the men's marathon.

The gesture - hands crossed to form an X above the head - is a symbol of defiance against the Ethiopian government's crackdown on anti-government protests that started in the Oromo region in November last year.

Human Rights Watch estimates the Ethiopian security forces have killed more than 400 people involved in the protests.

But the IPC sternly rebuked Demisse, 22, for making a political statement at the Games.

"He's been told very, very clearly that political statements are definitely (forbidden)... in the Paralympic Games, as they are in the Olympic Games. It's been made very, very clear to him that this must not be done again," said IPC president Philip Craven.

Lilesa made the protest gesture twice - first while crossing the finish line and again on the medal podium. He said he feared his life would be in peril if he returned home.

Ethiopian authorities assured him he would not be punished, but he nevertheless skipped the Olympic team's flight home.

Reports have suggested that he may seek political asylum in the United States.

His agent, Federico Rosa, said: "I don't think that there is any way that he will (go back to Ethiopia)."

A crowdfunding campaign set up to cover Lilesa's legal costs and support his family has generated more than US$160,000 (S$219,800) since it began on Aug 21.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2016, with the headline 'Ethiopian censured after protest gesture'. Print Edition | Subscribe