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Ten Eritrean players who were part of the country’s senior national team that lost to the Zebras in the 2018 World Cup qualifying game yesterday (Tuesday) have reportedly refused to return to their country, instead seeking refugee status in Botswana. Reports reaching Sunday Standard indicate that the ten players, who are currently held in custody at a police station in Francistown, have informed Botswana authorities that they are seeking political asylum, citing human rights violations in their country.
Botswana Football Association (BFA)'s Acting Vice President Admin, Basadi Akoonyatse said this morning that after their team lost 3-1 against the Botswana national team, at least ten players who were part of the 24-man Eritrean national team did not return to their official lodging, instead handing themselves over the police and declaring that they were seeking political asylum. She added that the ten players were reported missing by security officers at Tati River Lodge where they had lodged.
“Eretria’s foreign based players are reported to have informed the national technical team that they had no problem with returning to their country. Only the locally based players had issues with returning to their country,” said Koonyatse.
As the drama unfolds, the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights, which is registered in South Africa this morning instructed local law firm Bayford and Associates to represent the players. At the time of going to press the players were being interviewed by the Police at Kutlwano Police Station in Francistown. Sources from within the Eritrean diplomatic service have revealed that Eritrea is piling pressure on Botswana to have repatriated the ten players by end of business today. The Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights confirmed to Sunday Standard that they have been tipped off about plans to repatriate the players. All ten players are also members of the Eritrean army and there are fears that once repatriated they will be court marshalled and possibly charged with treason.
Meanwhile, attorney Dick Bayford of Bayford and Associates has written to Botswana authorities seeking assurance that the players will be deported. Bayford also notified the police that his law firm will approach the courts with an urgent application should the Police fail to give assurance that the players will not be deported. This is not the first time that the Eritrean national team has refused to return home while on national duty. Media reports indicate that in 2008 the Home Office granted six members of Eritrea's national athletics team political asylum after they competed in the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh. In 2009, at least 12 senior national team players who participated in the Orange Council of East and Central Africa Football Associations (CECAFA) senior Challenge Cup tournament sought refuge status from the Kenyan government. In 2011 the entire national team also refused to return home after playing in Kenya. The Eritrean team also defected in 2012 after playing in Tanzania and Uganda. Furthermore, six national football team players requested political asylum in Angola after a match a year later. Many thousands of ordinary Eritreans also flee Africa's most repressed nation each year. The United Nations says hundreds of Eritreans flee the country every month. Critics say citizens are fleeing the country's repressive government, poverty and harsh national service regime. Under President Isaias Afewerki, who led the country to independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea's government has become increasingly oppressive and authoritarian, with no political opposition, no independent media, and no real freedom of worship. Eritrea has been cited for gross human rights violations and is understood to have more than 10, 000 political prisoners, some of whom have been on detention without trial.