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Court stops Botswana from deporting Eritrea players

GABORONE, Botswana -- A group of 10 players from Eritrea's national team who are claiming asylum in Botswana after a World Cup qualifier have won a temporary reprieve, with a court ruling they shouldn't be sent back home.

The court said on Friday the players could stay temporarily and will have their asylum case heard on Dec. 11.

The players refused to return to Eritrea and turned themselves over to authorities in Botswana's second city of Francistown on Wednesday, a day after their team lost 3-1 to Botswana to be eliminated from World Cup qualifying.

Lawyers say the players are members of the army at home and could face a court martial and treason charges if sent back. Human rights activists say all Eritreans are forced to join the army at 17, supposedly for two years of national service, but claim many are not allowed to leave.

The government of Eritrea, a country of around six million people on the northeast coast of Africa, has been accused by human rights groups of being among the most repressive in the world. The United Nations released a report this year alleging, among other abuses, that forced and prolonged military service was common.

The players are being represented by human rights lawyer Dick Bayford, who works for the South Africa-based Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights.

In 2012, 17 Eritrea players and a team doctor went missing during a tournament in Uganda and eventually applied for asylum. It later emerged that they had been granted asylum in the Netherlands.

The entire Eritrean team sought refugee status at the same regional tournament in 2009.

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