Novak Djokovic can stay in Australia, according to judge’s rules

SYDNEY, Australia – Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic took one step closer to competing for his record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title after an Australian judge ordered his release from immigrant detention on Monday, the final turning point of a five-day saga about his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Judge Anthony Kelly ruled that Djokovic had been treated unfairly after arriving at Melbourne airport for the Australian Open, where he was allowed to play with a vaccination exemption. After detaining Djokovic, border officials promised to let him speak with tournament organizers and his lawyers early Thursday morning, only to cancel his visa before he had a chance.

The reinstatement of the visa does not, however, guarantee that Djokovic will be able to play his 10th Open title when the tournament begins next Monday. In court, government lawyers warned that the immigration minister could still cancel his visa, which would lead to an automatic three-year ban on his entry into the country.

Whatever happens next, the protracted conflict over the world’s best male tennis player appears to have crystallized for a moment as the pandemic nears its third year and the coronavirus circulates more widely than ever. Hosting international sporting events now involves navigating constantly evolving public health and border security rules, including managing the vaccination mandates of athletes who see themselves as the high priests of their own bodies and of their lives. their sports.

Djokovic, 34, has won numerous times on the tennis court when he seemed to have little luck, as all great players must. He also suffered humiliating defeats, once because he was disqualified after inadvertently hitting an angry bullet down the throat of a linesman.

But Monday’s victory was unlike anything he had ever experienced. Instead of a rival trying to stifle their shot at a championship, it was an overnight border guard squad backed by an Australian Prime Minister trying to enforce the will of millions of citizens who generally hate “queue jumpers” trying to get around the rules.

Australians rushed to meet vaccine mandates and faced lockdowns and closed borders. Many have little tolerance for a star who is known to preach unwanted science and who some believe has gotten special treatment by receiving a vaccination exemption amid Australia’s worst fight against the virus.

Djokovic’s refusal to back down in difficult situations has served him well during a career in which he has equaled two contemporary tennis legends, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. In this case, it caused him to continue fighting after authorities told him to leave a country with some of the strictest border enforcement policies in the world and with elections in a few months.

The decision backfired at first, sending him through days of solitary confinement in an immigrant detention hotel, and is expected to be part of the complicated legacy of one of the game’s greatest champions, a player much more feared than admired.

On several occasions, Djokovic has declared his opposition to vaccination warrants, claiming that vaccination is a private and personal decision. His initial approval for arriving in Australia was based on what his lawyers said was an infection he suffered from in mid-December, which led to his exemption from vaccination.

In court on Monday, they argued that the Australian government erred in canceling Djokovic’s visa due to the vaccine requirement and denied him the reasonable right to counter his claims.

Kelly, the pragmatic judge overseeing Djokovic’s appeal, was sympathetic from the start of Monday’s hearing. At one point, he reviewed a transcript of the tennis player’s interaction with border officials at the airport, pointing out that he was “in solitary” from 4 a.m. is complied with the order to turn off his cell phone.

According to the judge, authorities promised to let Djokovic speak to his team and Tennis Australia at 8:30 am, to cancel his visa at 7:42 am.

The judge noted that Djokovic’s visa application included a doctor’s medical exemption, supported by an independent panel convened by the state government of Victoria, which includes Melbourne.

“The point I’m a little agitated about is: what more could this man have done? Kelly said.

Federal government lawyers countered during the hearing that Djokovic could be refused entry if he posed a risk to public health. No visitors to Australia are guaranteed to be admitted on arrival, and all are subject to additional border checks, the government argued in court documents, adding that past Covid-19 infections were not no longer a valid reason to postpone vaccination against the virus.

Under vaccine guidelines released in December by the country’s leading medical body, travelers arriving in Australia should be vaccinated against Covid-19 after recovering from “serious acute medical illness”. The government argued that “the proof is that the applicant has recovered.”

None of this was discussed in public – the court adjourned most of the afternoon, before coming back with a deal.

But we still do not know if or when Djokovic was really ill. On December 16, the day he said he tested positive, he appeared at a public event broadcast live. The next day, he appeared at an awards ceremony for junior players, where photographs showed he was not wearing a mask.

What is clear, even to many Australians who say the rules should be applied equally to everyone, is that they are embarrassed by the whole thing. Australia’s entry process for the tournament, and international travel in general during the pandemic, has been marred by confusion, dysfunction and political pointing which adds to a mixture of incompetence and disorder from the Covid era.

“It’s a dog’s breakfast,” said Mary Crock, a law professor at the University of Sydney. “The rules change all the time, nobody knows which rules apply, that’s the essence of it. You have a massive conflict between migration law, biosafety law, state policymakers, and the federal government, and it’s all in conflict.

Communications between national health officials and Tennis Australia, and between Tennis Australia and the players, revealed conflicting messages spanning months and left as unresolved as an argument in a schoolyard.

Federal officials wrote to Craig Tiley, managing director of Tennis Australia, in November to say that testing positive for the virus in the past six months would not be enough to automatically enter the country without vaccination.

But letters leaked to Australian news outlets showed that an adviser to Australia’s health director general also told Tennis Australia that the state of Victoria is responsible for assessing exemptions.

On December 2, Brett Sutton, the health officer at Victoria, wrote to Tennis Australia: ‘Anyone with a history of recent Covid-19 infection (defined as within 6 months) who can provide appropriate evidence of this medical history, exempt from quarantine requirements upon arrival in Victoria from abroad.

Five days later, Tennis Australia delivered the message to the players.

Djokovic landed at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport around 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday. After an almost 10-hour standoff at the airport, border officials said he should leave the country. His team filed a legal challenge against the decision on Thursday. Djokovic was allowed to stay in Australia in a hotel that houses refugees.

By this point, his detention had already become political. Australian leaders have a long history of electoral victories with harsh rhetoric on border enforcement, despite the country’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has followed a predictable scenario.

Facing a tough re-election campaign as the economy begins to freeze due to a wave of absences from work caused by an Omicron outbreak and lack of testing capacity, he rushed to the decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa, trying to present it as a clear case of severed law and order.

Rules are rules“he said, adding:” Our government has a solid form when it comes to securing our borders. “

Critics of Australian immigration policies said they were appalled, but not surprised. The hotel where Djokovic is staying is home to dozens of refugees, some of whom have been detained for nearly a decade.

“As a country we have over time proven to be very aggressive in enforcing immigration policy,” said Steven Hamilton, a former Australian Treasury official who teaches economics at George Washington University. . “People overseas should see it through this lens rather than as a health measure. It has nothing to do with health.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did Tennis Australia. Djokovic was off camera throughout the hearing, but Judge Kelly insisted he be released within 30 minutes of the ruling at 5:16 p.m.

He warned government lawyers that another attempt to cancel Djokovic’s visa could be costly, for Djokovic and others.

“The stakes have now risen instead of falling,” he said. “I am very worried.”

Yan Zhuang contributed reporting from Melbourne.

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