An attempt by attorney Dick Bayford and the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR) to reach 10 players facing deportation currently held at the Francistown Centre for Illegal Immigrants hit a snag on Wednesday, after unidentified operatives had warned against such interaction.
The revelation was made on Friday morning by Bayford when giving an update on the status of the 10 players after the High Court granted them leave to remain in the country until their asylum application was processed. Court had also ordered that Bayford be allowed access to the players, as their legal representative. What was supposed to be a warm and heroic reception for Bayford and his team during their Wednesday visit turned to be a rude awakening as the players did not want anything to do with him. They had been warned against meeting him.
It has since emerged that two days after the court order interdicting government from deporting the Eritrean players (18 October 2015), five unidentified agents visited them and cautioned that the EMDHR and Bayford were a stumbling block in the processing of their asylum status. Bayford said when they met the players on Wednesday they made it clear that they did not want their representation. “They were made to believe that the court order date to hear the matter on December 11 was a way by the movement and the lawyers to delay the process,” said Bayford. He explained that after a lengthy persuasion the players told him they have been made to write declaration letters stating that they do not want representation. "They narrated that they were told that if they accept the representation the processing of their asylum status will take longer and they will rot in the detention centre,” he said.
The Francistown Centre for Illegal Immigrants is a high security facility in the mould of Gaborone Central prison where hardened convicts serve their sentences. Bayford said after five hours on intensive pleading the players came around and revoked the declarations they made to the plain clothes agents and agreed to acknowledge his and EMDHR representation through a written letter. According to Bayford, what the officials did was unlawful and contemptuous to the court order. “We tried to identify these visitors through the facility log book but there were no records. We learnt that Directorate of Intelligence and Security (DIS) officials are the only ones who can access the facility without records,” he explained.
Even though they could not identify who addressed the players Bayford promised that they will get to the bottom of the matter to find their identities. This, however, leaves the lawyers between a rock and a hard place to fight for due process of asylum status to take place as well as deal with the other challenges. He explained that the government tricks are happening because the players are kept in the dark about what is happening on the outside. He said they did not even know why there was an urgent court application in the first place. The application came in the wake of comments made by the Minister of Defence, Justice and Security Shaw Kgathi who said the asylum seekers were not legitimately in Botswana and should be deported to their country. Kgathi, however, a day later somersaulted on this and softened his tone. “We need to be careful here as going to court again could be a trap for us as the officials may come back to the players and tell them these people want to delay the process," said Bayford.
The process to assess the players’ asylum status is reported to have started on Tuesday when all the players were interviewed. The EMDHR, however, felt the process of assessing the asylum status of the players is tainted following Kgathi’s comments. Kgathi is the ultimate decision maker after the recommendations of the Refugee Advisory Committee that conducts the assessment. The players are said to have also raised concerns regarding their stay at the detention camp. One of the issues is concerning food, which Bayford said the players are not happy with eating maize-meal as they do not eat it in Eritrea. The other thing they raised is that they are religious (one Muslim, two Catholics and seven Coptic Orthodox Christians) and need to be given an opportunity to practice. “We met with the facility management and we were assured these concerns will be addressed," said Bayford.
Secretary for Defence, Justice and Security Augustine Makgonatsotlhe, has however rubbished the allegations, saying nothing of that sort happened. "This is a serious allegation against government. Our current position is that when people come here seeking asylum we give them a hearing before deciding whether to grant them a refugee status or not. They will be given an opportunity to be heard. That process is currently ongoing and a decision will be made. If they are found deserving they will be granted asylum and if they do not qualify they will be so rejected but due process will be followed. Those allegations are totally baseless and untrue. Having told the world that we are a democratic country with respect for the rule of law and respect the rights of people how can we then go against the same principle? We have consented to a court order that due process be followed and as a law abiding government we are complying," said Makgonatsotlhe.
He took a swipe at Bayford for claiming that government agents are interfering, saying he has repeatedly assured the latter that the Eritreans will be accorded their rights and natural justice will prevail. "The lawyers should hold their horses and not interfere with committees set up in terms of the law to assess the application. It is not like the Eritreans are the first people to come to Botswana seeking asylum. We have evaluated many such cases and made fair decisions for asylum seekers from all over the continent from countries like Angola, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Mozambique and South Africa," said Makgonatsotlhe.
Meanwhile MISA Botswana has called on the government of Botswana to respect international laws and conventions while processing requests of asylum by the 10 Eritrean players. MISA Botswana also expressed disappointment by the government of Botswana’s action of tempering with the freedom of expression of the 10 Eritrean players seeking asylum in the country. "This action of deceiving asylum seekers to write promissory letters is deprivation of freedom of expression and is in violation of articles 7 and 9 of the Africa Charter on human and people’s rights. Article 7 states that, “every individual shall have the right to have his cause heard”. In this case the government was denying the Eritreans an opportunity to be heard through a legal or human rights activist of their choice. This is tantamount to justice denied. While article 9 (2), “state that every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law”. This article empowers the Eritreans to explain circumstances compelling them to seek asylum within laws of the country without violations," read MISA statement.
Arrival in Botswana: 12 October 2015
Match day: 13 October 2015
Disappearance: 14 October 2015
Detention: 14 October 2015
Court Application: 16 October 2015
Visit by faceless government officials: 18 October 2015
Visit by Bayford: 21 October 2015