Overwhelming fundraising response for Ethiopian Olympian US asylum bid

Feyisa Lilesa crossed the marathon finish line at Rio with his arms raised in protest (Reuters)
Feyisa Lilesa crossed the marathon finish line at Rio with his arms raised in protest (Reuters)

A crowdfunding campaign for Ethiopian Olympic runner Feyisa Lilesa has raised more than US$66,000 (NZ$91,000) in an effort to help him live safely in the United States.

After Rio, Lilesa is seeking asylum in the US, as he fears for his life in his homeland.

The threat of persecution in Ethiopia comes after Lilesa finished the men's marathon at the Olympic Games, holding his arms crossed above his head in a gesture of protest against the Ethiopian government.

"The Ethiopian government is killing my people so I stand with all protests anywhere as Oromo is my tribe. My relatives are in prison and if they talk about democratic rights they are killed," Lilesa told the BBC.

A legal team hired by US-based Ethiopians is reported to be heading for Rio to try and help with Lilesa's asylum bid.

The fundraising started online on Monday (NZ time) and is close to meeting its US$75,000 (NZ$102,000) goal on Tuesday. 

On the crowdfunding page it says: "We are calling on all Ethiopians and human rights advocates to make contributions to funds needed to support marathon athlete Feyisa Lelisa who exhibited extraodrinary heroism by becoming an international symbol for #OromoProtests and Ethiopian Freedom Movement after winning a medal at the Rio de Janeiro [Olympics]."

If his asylum request is denied in the US, he is expected to move to Kenya where he has family.

The conflict in Ethiopia stems from government plans to develop land around the capital city Addis Ababa. The land is used by farmers who belong to the Oromo ethnic group. Mass protested erupted in response, which the Ethiopian government met with violent crackdowns.