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Eritrean footballers seek asylum in Botswana - NGO

15 October 2015, 18:09

Gaborone - Ten footballers from Eritrea's national squad have sought political asylum in Botswana after playing in a qualifying match for the 2018 World Cup, an Eritrean non-governmental organisation said Friday.

The players were part of the national team -- known as the Red Sea Camels -- that lost 3-1 to Botswana in Francistown on Tuesday night.

Eritrean footballers have repeatedly sought asylum while playing abroad, and all foreign travel is restricted for citizens from the country, which has been severely criticised by the UN for rights violations.

"About 10 football players from the country declined to board a plane home... stating that they needed political asylum," said Dick Bayford, a lawyer representing the Pretoria-based Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR).

"They were then taken into custody for interviewing."

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The players reportedly absconded from their camp the day after the match before being picked up by police.

In 2012, 18 players claimed asylum in Uganda after a match there.

Another six fled while in Angola in 2007, and 12 more did the same in Kenya in 2009.

Military service is compulsory in Eritrea, where President Isaias Afwerki has been in power since independence in 1993.

A June report by the UN human rights office described systematic and widespread "gross human rights violations" in the country, including mass incarceration of political opponents, extrajudicial killings and torture.

The Eritrean government dismissed the report.

The third lowest ranked team in Africa and ahead only of Djibouti and Somalia, Eritrea's national squad is drawn from local players and many diaspora who play club football abroad.

EMDHR's Adane Ghebremestel said the organisation was calling for help to stop the authorities deporting the athletes who remained in Botswana as their lives were endangered.

"Most of the players (who have sought asylum) are from the Eritrean Army, he said, adding that they face treason charges.

The country has withdrawn or abstained from several recent international football competition due to the frequent defections.

Last year, they pulled out the African Cup of Nations just weeks before a scheduled qualifier against South Sudan.

Eritrea regularly features at the bottom of world lists for political and media freedoms, freedom of expression and human rights.

Political opponents are routinely arrested, tortured, locked up without trial or simply disappear.

The government spies on citizens, and military conscripts are forced into decades-long military service.

Eritreans make up the third-largest number of refugees trying to reach Europe, after Syrians and Afghans.

As well as footballers escaping, fighter pilots have also fled in their aircraft.

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