© Reuters. Police personnel watch pro-refugee protestors rally outside the Park Hotel, where Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is believed to be held while he stays, in Melbourne, Australia, January 10, 2022. REUTERS/Sandra Sanders
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic’s battle to remain in Australia and bid for a record breaking tennis title goes before the courts on Monday, with the star player’s lawyers and the federal government to face off over his controversial COVID-19 vaccination exemption.
Djokovic, who has been held in an immigration detention hotel since his visa was revoked on his arrival at Melbourne’s airport on Wednesday, argues that a recent COVID-19 infection qualified him for the medical exemption from the country’s requirement for all visitors to be double vaccinated.
The Australian government, however, said non-citizens had no right of guaranteed entry to Australia and stressed that even if the Serbian won the court action, it reserved the right to detain him again and remove him from the country.
The hearing in the Federal Circuit and Family Court is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. (2300 GMT Sunday) after Judge Anthony Kelly refused a request by the government to delay the hearing until Wednesday. The session will be held remotely and live-streamed for the public.
Djokovic, the world number one, is hoping to win a record 21st Grand Slam at the Australian Open, which starts in Melbourne on Jan. 17.
But instead of training, the Serbian player has been confined in a hotel used for asylum seekers and is challenging the decision to cancel his visa after being stopped on arrival at Melbourne Airport.
Crowds of Djokovic’s supporters have gathered outside the hotel, dancing and cheering, along with protesters criticising Australia’s harsh asylum policies.
Djokovic, a vocal opponent of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, said in a filing to the court on Saturday that he been granted an exemption from vaccination due to having had the virus in December. Paperwork filed to the court showed he was unvaccinated.
His lawyers said he had the necessary permissions to enter Australia, including an assessment from the Department of Home Affairs that responses on his travel declaration form indicated he met the conditions for quarantine-free arrival. The government disputed this.
It said the department’s email was not an assurance “that his so-called ‘medical exemption’ would be accepted”, and his responses could be questioned and verified on his arrival.
The government also challenged Djokovic’s claim for a medical exemption on the basis he had contracted COVID-19 in mid-December and had recovered two weeks later.
“There is no suggestion that the applicant had “acute major medical illness” in December 2021. All he has said is that he tested positive for COVID-19. This is not the same,” the filing said.
French newspaper L’Equipe published a photograph of the player taken when he was named the daily’s Champion of Champions in the days after he said in the court filing he had tested positive for coronavirus, Dec. 16. Other photographs published on social media showed him appearing at functions in Serbia on dates soon after that test.
It was not clear if Djokovic knew of his positive test at the time of the events shown in the pictures.
Djokovic, 34, has won the Australian Open nine times and the drama over his refused entry has caused a furore in sporting circles, sparked tensions between Serbia and Australia and become a flashpoint for opponents of vaccine mandates around the world.
WORLD NO. 1 IS A NON-CITIZEN
The government filing on Sunday stressed that even if the court ruled to free Djokovic from detention and let him play in the Open, under Australian law the government had every right to bar him because he is a non-citizen.
That drew particular ire from Djokovic’s father, who addressed another small protest in front of Serbia’s parliament building in Belgrade on Sunday.
“Are we animals? What are we? We’re human beings. This is happening because we are just a small part of the world, but we are proud. They have no respect for him.”
Tennis Australia CEO Craig Tiley said in his first media interview since the furore began that his organisation had spoken with federal and state officials for months to ensure the safe passage of players.
Czech player Renata Voracova, who was detained in the same detention hotel as Djokovic and had her visa revoked after issues with her vaccine exemption, left the country without challenging her status, the Czech Foreign Ministry said.