Rio de Janeiro (AFP) – The International Paralympic Committee reprimanded a visually impaired Ethiopian runner Monday for crossing his arms above his head at the finish line, a protest against alleged rights abuses by his government.
The protest by Tamiru Demisse, the silver medalist in the men’s 1,500 m in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday, comes 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 — a sort of X above the head — is a symbol of defiance against the Ethiopian government’s crack-down 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 International Paralympic Committee 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 Paralympics 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.
Olympic athlete Lilesa made the protest gesture twice — once 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 he may seek political asylum in the United States.
His agent, Federico Rosa, told AFP: “I don’t think that there is any way that he will (go back to Ethiopia).”
Regarded as one of Africa’s most repressive states, Ethiopia is struggling to contain the rare anti-government unrest unleashed by the protest movement, which has spread from Oromo in the center of the country to Amhara in the north.