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Marathon runner returns to reformed Ethiopia after exile

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Feyisa Lilesa dramatic crossed-wrist protest made headlines and shone the spotlight on a sometimes brutal government crackdown against Ethioia’s Oromo protesters © AFP/File / Adrian DENNIS

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, Oct 21After two years of political exile that began at the Rio Olympic Games marathon finish line the athlete Feyisa Lilesa returned home to Ethiopia on Sunday saying the African nation was now a freer place.

Lilesa, now 28, won the silver medal at Rio but his anti-government protest — holding his wrists together in imaginary handcuffs in front of television cameras — against the former hard-line regime led him to remain in exile, choosing Flagstaff, Arizona, as his temporary haven.

But on Sunday he was met at the airport by the country’s Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu and other dignitaries in the government of reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who came to power in April.

“There is quite a change in the country, now people can freely express their opinions and condemn the government freely,” Lilesa told reporters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

“My sympathy goes out to martyrs that sacrificed lives and gave the freedom to come to my country and join my family. They faced the dark and became a light for us,” said a visibly emotional Lilesa.

“I want to come back to my previous performance. I have a big hope to score a good result for my country and myself,” Lilesa said.

Ethiopia this week unveiled a new 20-member cabinet featuring 10 women, becoming one of only a handful of nations to achieve gender parity in government.

Since coming to power Abiy’s measures have included ending two decades of conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, releasing jailed dissidents, welcoming formerly banned groups back into the country and announcing plans to privatise major state-owned industries.

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