World No 1 Novak Djokovic won a stunning victory Monday over the Australian government as a court overturned the cancellation of the tennis star’s visa on Covid-19 health grounds, ending his detention.
It was an extraordinary setback for the Australian government, which has imposed strict pandemic requirements on arriving foreign travellers for the past two years.
Federal Judge Anthony Kelly abruptly ended days of legal wrangling, as the state dropped its decision to revoke the star’s visa. The ruling stated that Djokovic’s legal costs must be covered by the government and that he be released from detention within 30 minutes of the order, with his personal belongings returned to him, reported BBC.
Tennis Australia chief Craig Tiley had already said on Sunday that he would like to see Djokovic play in the Major. If the Serb’s visa is indeed reinstated, the title defence would very much be on. However, at the end of the hearing, government lawyer Christopher Tran informed the judge that Immigration Minister Alex Hawke may step in with executive powers.
“I’m instructed (the minister) will consider whether to exercise a personal power of cancellation,” he said.
But the Australian government’s lawyer told the court that minister Hawke may still decide to use his “personal power of cancellation” despite the player’s victory.
The 34-year-old arrived in Melbourne last week ahead of the Australian Open, which starts in just one week, hoping to win a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title.
On his arrival, officers at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport said the unvaccinated tennis star had failed to present a solid medical reason for not being jabbed.
Djokovic’s visa was then revoked and he was moved to an immigration detention facility pending deportation.
In an emergency online court hearing Monday, the judge said the government side had agreed to drop its visa decision, and ordered Djokovic’s immediate release.
“Such release must occur no later than 30 minutes after the making of this order,” he said.
Djokovic has been in detention at 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.
Djokovic had initially been given a medical exemption from Australia’s vaccination requirements to enter the country. Upon arrival in the country, the border force decided his reasons for being unvaccinated were not strong enough.
Despite the court’s order, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has the power to cancel an existing visa if he believed there were grounds to do so – in this case a “threat to public health”, according to The Guardian.
According to court documents, the tennis star sought an exemption claiming that he had tested positive for the coronavirus on December 16 (the test and positive result were within a few hours on the same day). This later became a controversy after it emerged he had attended a gathering that day for the Serbian national postal service launching a stamp series in his honour. However, pictures shared by the Belgrade tennis federation also showed him at a young players’ event in the city. The event was reportedly held on December 17, which we now know to be a day after the Covid-19 positive result. It reported that he had handed over cups and prizes to players. No one was wearing a mask.
The documents provided in the case also confirmed that Djokovic is unvaccinated against Covid-19, something that has not been officially stated yet.
It also emerged that the Border Force had given Djokovic limited time to make his case for the visa to be not cancelled:
Interviewer: - I will give you like, you know, 20 minutes – or whatever if you need more time you can request that – and you need to provide us reasons why we shouldn’t cancel the visa.
Djokovic: I mean, I am really failing to understand what else do you want me to provide to you. I have provided all the documents that Tennis Australia and Victorian government has asked me to do in the last three/four weeks, this is what we have been doing. My agent and I have been in a constant communication through my agent with Tennis Australia and Victorian state government, the medical panel. They – whatever they asked us to do – this is their set of rules that they have provided so they have allowed to have the medical exemption for the Covid vaccination. I applied, they approved, I just really don’t know what else do you want me to say. What – I just – I have nothing else – I arrived here because of these documents otherwise I wouldn’t have been allowed to come in. I just really don’t understand what is the reason you don’t allow me to enter your country – just I mean, I have been waiting four hours and I still fail to, to understand what’s the main reason – like – lack of what papers? Lack of what information do you need? Or?
INTERVIEWER: Ah yep, so I am just going to read out all of the information to you and I’m going to give you a copy of this as well. So everything is in there. But yeah, I have to go through this process and then the explanation you have given me, I mean, you can give it to me after the timeframe which we give you. The 20 minutes we have to give you.
Djokovic: So you’re giving me legally 20 minutes to try to provide additional 50 information that I don’t have? At 4 o clock in the morning? I mean you kind of put me in a very awkward position where at 4 in the morning I can’t call director of Tennis Australia, I can’t engage with anybody from the Victorian state government through Tennis Australia. I just you put me in a very uncomfortable position. I don’t know what else can I tell you. Everything that that they – I was asked to do is here. And I wouldn’t be here sitting in front of you if I wasn’t complying to all the rules and regulations set by your government. So I just – I don’t know what I I mean – to me it is a little bit shocking that you are have – that you are going to give me the notice to cancel my visa based on what?— via https://www.fedcourt.gov.au/
Another tennis player – Czech doubles specialist Renata Voracova – has also had her visa cancelled after obtaining a medical exemption. She flew out of Australia on Saturday after being held in the same Melbourne centre as Djokovic.
‘Not human conditions’
An early plea by Djokovic to be moved from the former Park Hotel to a facility where he can train for the Australian Open had fallen on deaf ears, his lawyers said.
The court’s finding, read out in an online hearing, recalled that Djokovic was interviewed overnight at Melbourne airport after his arrival late on Wednesday night.
In the early hours of the next morning, the player was told he had until 8.30 am to reply to the proposed cancellation of his visa. But instead, the border agent cancelled it at 7.42 am. If Djokovic had been given until 8.30 am as first promised, “he could have consulted others and made submissions to the delegate about why his visa should not be cancelled,” the judge said.
Though the hearing was held online, a small group of Djokovic fans gathered outside the federal court building, waving a Serbian flag, holding up a photo of him and dancing to the tune of an accordion.
Earlier, at a rally in Belgrade, Djokovic’s mother Dijana claimed her son was staying “in not human conditions” during his four-night stay at the detention centre.
“They detained him and even don’t give him breakfast, he has only lunch and dinner,” she alleged, according to by local media. “He does not have a normal window, he stares at a wall.”
Serbia Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said this weekend that after “constructive talks” with her Australian counterpart, “we managed that he gets gluten-free food, exercise equipment, a laptop.”
(With AFP inputs)
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