Djokovic opens dramatic court battle to stay in Australia
MELBOURNE, Australia – Detained tennis superstar Novak Djokovic gets his day in court Monday, with an Australian judge poised to hear his make-or-break bid to avoid deportation and challenge for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title.
The unvaccinated Serb had his visa revoked on arrival to Australia last week and he has spent the last four nights at a notorious Melbourne immigration detention facility.
The 34-year-old’s lawyers will tell the court he should be allowed to remain in Australia because a recent second COVID-19 infection made him exempt from vaccine entry requirements.
Government lawyers reject that argument saying Djokovic failed to meet the medical criteria as his illness was not “acute,” according to a filing late Sunday.
They will seek to have his appeal dismissed with costs, paving the way for his deportation as soon as Monday evening.
The online federal court hearing is scheduled to start at 10:00 am (2300 GMT Sunday).
Djokovic is expected to watch from the former Park Hotel, a five-storey facility that holds about 32 migrants trapped in Australia’s hardline immigration system — some for years on end.
For days, demonstrators and counter-demonstrators have gathered outside the facility. Nobody is allowed in or out except staff.
Hours before the hearing, a pro-refugee banner was unfurled from the roof and police removed a small number of protestors from the scene.
At a rally in Belgrade, Djokovic’s mother Dijana claimed her son was staying “in not human conditions”.
“They detained him and even don’t give him breakfast, he has only lunch and dinner,” she said, quoted by N1 regional television.
“He does not have a normal window, he stares at a wall.”
With a week to go before the January 17 start of the Australian Open, any delay in the case could dash the 34-year-old’s hopes of winning his 10th crown in Melbourne.
In an order released to the public Sunday, Judge Anthony Kelly said the one-day case will go ahead as scheduled, refusing a government request to adjourn until Wednesday.
Djokovic’s lawyers have submitted a 35-page document arguing his visa was wrongly cancelled.
They argue Tennis Australia cleared him to play in the tournament because of his recent infection and that his application was approved by two independent medical panels.
But government lawyers rebuffed his arguments point-by-point in a 13-page submission, arguing he poses a risk to people and the health system in Australia.
Australia’s vaccination exemption form clearly states that a previous infection “is not a contraindication to immunisation”, the government lawyers stressed.
Foreigners are still mostly banned from travel to Australia, and those granted entry must be fully vaccinated or have a medical exemption.
Despite Djokovic’s claim of a positive test on December 16, pictures shared by the Belgrade tennis federation showed him at a young players’ event in the city on December 17.
It reported that he had handed over cups and prizes to players. No one was wearing a mask.
Djokovic also attended a gathering on December 16, when the Serbian national postal service launched a stamp series in his honour.
The tennis ace’s lawyers argued that he faced an “unfair procedure”, claiming Australian border agents refused him time to rest and consult lawyers.
But the government rejected this, saying Djokovic had an opportunity to put his case to a border agent and had previously contacted his lawyers.
Since being held, his pleas to be moved to a facility where he can train for the Australian Open have fallen on deaf ears, his lawyers said.
The centre gained notoriety last year when a fire forced migrants to be evacuated, and maggots were allegedly found in the food.
Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said this weekend that Serbia was fully behind the player and she had held “constructive talks” with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne.
“We managed that he gets gluten-free food, exercise equipment, a laptop,” she told Serbia’s Pink television.
Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley on Monday defended his organisation from criticism that it failed to warn players that a previous infection did not qualify them for entry without a Covid-19 vaccination.
Tiley said he had asked the government to review medical exemptions before the players arrived, but “they declined.”
“We asked if they could please assess our decisions. We said we’re going to need some help to make sure we’re doing the right thing. We’d be in a different situation today,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald.
A second tennis player who was headed to the Australian Open — Czech doubles specialist Renata Voracova — said her visa was cancelled after initially being allowed into the country.
She flew out of Australia on Saturday after being held in the same Melbourne centre as Djokovic.
As other players now enter the final intense phase of preparations for the tournament, Djokovic faces huge pressure to be ready in time.
Djokovic’s lawyers have told the court that Tennis Australia needs an answer by Tuesday. The draw for the event is scheduled for Thursday.
But Judge Kelly has warned justice would move at its own pace through all necessary appeals.
“The tail won’t be wagging the dog here,” he said.
Meanwhile, much of Australia is tightening restrictions to battle an Omicron-fuelled wave of infections.
The country is now reaching about 100,000 cases a day, having been virus-free for much of the pandemic.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended revoking Djokovic’s visa, saying: “Rules are rules.”
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