Djokovic back in detention, continues to fight deportation

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Novak Djokovic was back in immigration detention on Saturday after his legal challenge to avoid being deported from Australia for not being vaccinated against COVID-19 was referred to a higher court. .

A hearing in Federal Court was scheduled for Sunday, a day before the No. 1-ranked male tennis player and nine-time Australian Open champion was due to begin his title defense at the first Grand Slam tennis tournament of the year.

Djokovic and his lawyers had an early morning meeting with immigration officials and by mid-afternoon Australian media reported that the tennis star had been taken into custody. Television footage showed the 34-year-old Serb wearing a face mask as he sat in a vehicle near a migrant detention hotel.

He spent four nights confined to a hotel near Melbourne city center before being released last Monday when he won a legal challenge on procedural grounds. against his first visa cancellation.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke on Friday blocked the visa, which was initially revoked when it landed at a Melbourne airport on January 5.

Deportation from Australia can result in a three-year ban on returning to the country, although it can be lifted, depending on the circumstances.

Djokovic admitted that his travel declaration was incorrect as it did not state that he had visited multiple countries in the two weeks prior to his arrival in Australia.

But that’s not why Hawke decided that sending off Djokovic was in the public interest.

Djokovic’s lawyers filed court documents that revealed Hawke said the tennis star “is seen by some as the talisman of a community of anti-vaccination sentiments.”

Australia has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the world.

But the minister said Djokovic’s presence in Australia could pose a risk to the health and “good order” of the Australian public and “may be counterproductive to vaccination efforts by others in Australia”.

The Department of Health has advised that Djokovic has a “low” risk of transmission of COVID-19 and a “very low” risk of transmission of the disease at the Australian Open.

The minister cited Djokovic’s comments in April 2020 that he was “against vaccination” and that he would not have wanted to be forced by someone to get vaccinated in order to compete.

Djokovic’s lawyers argued that the Minister had not cited any evidence that Djokovic’s presence in Australia could “foster anti-vaccination sentiment”.

Hundreds of activists staged a peaceful rally outside the Melbourne Park complex that hosts the Australian Open, and have planned another on Monday.

“We are at Rod Laver Arena supporting Novak. He won nine titles (Australian Open) here. Hopefully it will be No 10 – if he can get out of quarantine and get his visa back,” said Harrison McLean, one of the rally organizers. “We are a peaceful movement, here to raise awareness and support everyone’s freedom of choice.”

On Saturday, Federal Chief Justice James Allsop announced he would hear the case with Justices David O’Callaghan and Anthony Besanko.

The decision by three judges to hear the appeal instead of a single judge elevates the importance of the case from the perspective of the judiciary and means that any verdict would be less likely to be appealed .

Sydney-based immigration lawyer Simon Jeans said he was surprised Djokovic was no longer being deported because his COVID-19 infection last month did not exempt him from Australia’s strict rules that foreign visitors are vaccinated unless there are valid medical reasons they cannot. to be.

“The unanswered question is if Djokovic was such a threat to good order, why give him a visa ‘in November,'” Jeans asked. It will be much more difficult for the minister to convince three judges that what he did was in the public interest.

Djokovic, who has won the last three Australian Open titles, will be released from hotel detention on Sunday to visit his lawyers’ offices for the video hearing.

He is on the hunt for a record 21st Grand Slam singles title. He is currently tied with Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for most by a man in history.

In a social media post on Wednesday that was his most extensive public comment to date on the episode, Djokovic blamed his agent for checking the wrong box on his travel document, calling it “human error. and certainly not deliberate”.

In that same message, Djokovic said he gave an interview and a photoshoot with a French newspaper in Serbia when he knew he had tested positive for COVID-19. Djokovic tried to use what he says was a positive test taken on December 16 to justify a medical exemption that would allow him to avoid having to get vaccinated on the grounds that he already had COVID-19.

In canceling Djokovic’s visa, Hawke said Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government “is strongly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic”.

The episode struck a chord in Australia, and particularly in the state of Victoria, where residents endured more than 260 days of lockdown during the worst of the pandemic.

Australia is facing a massive increase in virus cases caused by the highly transmissible omicron variant. On Friday, the country reported 130,000 new cases, including nearly 35,000 in Victoria state. Although many infected people are not getting as sick as in previous outbreaks, the outbreak continues to strain the healthcare system and disrupt supply chains.

Djokovic’s supporters in Serbia have been appalled by visa cancellations. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic accused the Australian government of “harassing” and “abusing” Djokovic and questioned whether Morrison’s government was simply trying to score political points before the next election.

“Why didn’t you send him back right away or tell him it was impossible to get a visa?” Vucic asked Australian authorities in a social media address. “Why are you harassing him and why are you mistreating not only him, but his family and an entire free and proud nation.”

Everyone at the Australian Open must be vaccinated.

Under Grand Slam rules, if Djokovic is forced to withdraw from the tournament before the order of play for Day 1 is announced, No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev would fill Djokovic’s place in the squad.

If Djokovic withdraws from the tournament after Monday’s schedule is published, he will be replaced on the pitch by what is known as a ‘lucky loser’ – a player who loses in the qualifying tournament but enters the main draw because of the exit of another player before the competition. has begun.

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AP Sports Writer John Pye contributed to this report.

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