Scotland has acquired a ready-made team of world-class athletes in a group of Eritreans who have been granted political asylum.

Three men and three women who competed at the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh five weeks ago applied for asylum and four have been granted. The others expect to hear this week. Given that precedent, the legal firm advising them is optimistic they will also be given Home Office approval.

A seventh Eritrean, who did not race in Edinburgh, won the recent Tom Scott road race, a classic on the Scottish athletics calendar, having already been granted Home Office clearance.

The group includes junior and senior world championship track finalists and some have won medals in major international events. Some of their performances are superior to existing Scottish records. However, now that asylum has been granted, they must wait a minimum of five years before a UK passport is granted. Given that returning home would mean imprisonment and torture, or worse, they seem certain to remain.

They would then become eligible to run for Britain and for Scotland, probably the year before the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow at the earliest.

The athletes, who have a new home at the Red Road flats in Glasgow, have indicated they want to stay in Scotland where they have been befriended by the Eritrean community.

They have all joined the Shettleston Harriers, the Glasgow East End club which has a proud history of community and social welfare, who have paid their entry to forthcoming races where they are sure to have an immediate impact.

The Eritreans were conscripted into the army where they can be forced to fight or work as what members of their community in Scotland describe as slave labour. One in 20 of Eritrea's 4.4 million population are in the military and round-ups at gunpoint of people of military age are a regular occurence. Reporters Without Borders ranks Eritrea last of 169 countries in terms of human rights record.

The athletes sought help after the cross-country event at Holyrood, in Edinburgh, on March 30. Aged from 18 to 29, they are mainly children of subsistence farmers, though some had gone to the capital, Asmara, which has a population of some 570,000. However, the culture shock of being transplanted to Glasgow's Red Road flats has been enormous.

Agostino Desta fought in Eritrea's liberation movement but came to Scotland 18 years ago. He is married to a Scot and has three children. He works as an interpreter with the Glasgow Translation Service, which is supported by the city council.

"When I was introduced to the athletes they were terrified," he said. "They thought I was from the Eritrean embassy. Once they trusted me, they explained they could not go back to the military. Effectively they asked me to help them save their lives. I told them they must carry on running, or they will die here.

"If you are a refugee, with nothing to do, no focus, your mental health suffers. Depression is very common. That's why we don't let people live alone. We try to help wherever we can. They face despair at the likelihood of never being able to go home. Depression sets in because they realise they have effectively abandoned their families for life. Sometimes they are paralysed by freedom."

The refugees are also troubled that parents and families face fines as a result of their defection. Parents could even be imprisoned, while families have to post bonds for children who have fled conscription or deserted. This is routinely up to £1500.

Amanuel Weldeselassie Hagos is one of those already granted asylum. He has contested the world cross-country event four times. His 39th place in Edinburgh, behind his countryman, defending world champion Zersenay Tadesse (not among those seeking asylum) is his poorest. Little wonder, after four days hanging around Cairo waiting for a visa, and then being caught up in the chaos at Heathrow. He ran 13min 35.59sec for 10th in the 5000m at last year's African Games in Algiers. Only six Scots have ever run that fast and none for 11 years.

"I was in the 11th grade when they came to my school and rounded up all the boys of my age, for military service," he said. "I wanted to go to college. Instead I spent the 12th grade doing basic training as a soldier. Often they take the teachers as well."

Amanuel is now 29. Once in the army you can be there until you are over 40.

Mr Agostino says these athletes are the lucky ones. Some Eritreans come out through the desert, into Somalia.

"People desert from the military, often in sand storms, and head west into Somalia. They cross Africa in trucks and then try to get across the Mediterranean by boat. Three out of 10 boats sink.

"Many in the military are not soldiers. They are just forced labour. In 2008 we are the only country in the world with slavery."

Mr Agostino says that Amnesty International and Human Rights watch reports do not exaggerate. Punishment and torture in the forces is routine. Prisoners are suspended from trees with their arms tied behind their backs, a technique known as "almaz" or diamond. They are locked in freight containers with ferocious temperatures by day, and near zero at night.

Neil Barnes, of Glasgow solicitors McAuley & McCarthy, who has been looking after the asylum applications, has processed many similar ones. "The cases are either political or religious, but once you leave the country illegally, or don't go back, it becomes political."

The group are all Orthodox Christians. Last Easter weekend they went to church in Kirkcaldy. "Afterwards we had ingera and zigne (bread and lamb). It's a traditional dish," said Mr Agostino. "We all eat together. It's part of my job with the Eritrean community to find anyone living alone."

As they walk around the grass outside the Red Road YMCA, Tsegai Tewelde, 18, says the goats he grew up with "would eat all this in a day".

All of them are firm. They aim to stay in Scotland, and run for their new country.

"I want to stay here for my life," said Mr Tewelde.

A country without basic human rights DOUG GILLON Human Rights Watch, in its 2006 annual report, noted the Eritrean government had used the excuse that the country remains at war to refuse to implement the 1997 constitution, which respects civil and political rights.

It said the government had carried out unremitting attacks on democratic institutions, arresting political opponents, destroying the private press, and imprisoning anyone thought to challenge government policies.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office Country Profile of November 2005 listed human rights concerns: "Detention without charge is common. Freedom of expression is severely restricted and political critics and journalists have been held for long periods."

Amnesty International reports torture being "systematically practised within the army for interrogation and punishment, particularly of conscription-evaders, deserters, soldiers accused of military offences, and members of minority churches. Torture is also used against some political prisoners. Furthermore, the atrocious conditions under which many political prisoners are held amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."

Some detainees reportedly were rolled around in oil drums, abused by fellow prisoners, and the women sexually abused. Some reportedly suffer from partial paralysis as a result of their torture.

Amnesty reported in December 2006 that 500 relatives of conscription evaders were arrested and ordered to produce the missing conscripts or pay a £600 fine. Those who failed to comply were forced to serve six months in the army in place of the missing relative.

The US State Department has reported "unlawful killings by security forces, including some resulting from torture, numerous reports of torture and physical beatings of prisoners, particularly draft evaders".