Australia cancels tennis star Djokovic’s visa, citing health risk
Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic practices at Melbourne Park as questions remain over the legal battle regarding his visa to play in the Australian Open in Melbourne, Australia, January 13, 2022. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
MELBOURNE (Reuters) -Australia cancelled Novak Djokovic’s visa for a second time on Friday, saying the world tennis number one, who has not been vaccinated for COVID-19, may pose a health risk.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke used discretionary powers to again cancel Djokovic’s visa, after a court quashed an earlier revocation over COVID-19 entry regulations and released him from immigration detention on Monday.
The Age newspaper reported that the Serbian, who was bidding for a record 21st Grand Slam title at the Australian Open from Monday, had been summoned to appear before immigration officials on Saturday and would not be returned to detention in the meantime.
“Today I exercised my power under Section 133C(3) of the Migration Act to cancel the visa held by Mr Novak Djokovic on health and good order grounds, on the basis that it was in the public interest to do so,” Hawke said in a statement.
Under Section 133C, Djokovic would not be able to secure a visa to Australia for three years, except in compelling circumstances.
He has the right to challenge the revocation again, and a source close to Djokovic’s team said he was weighing his options. Hawke’s office was not available for comment.
The controversy has intensified a global debate over the rights of the unvaccinated and become a tricky political issue for Prime Minister Scott Morrison as he campaigns for an election due by May.
While Morrison’s government has won support at home for its tough stance on border security during the pandemic, it has not escaped criticism for the seemingly inconsistent handling of Djokovic’s visa application.
“Australians have made many sacrifices during this pandemic, and they rightly expect the result of those sacrifices to be protected,” Morrison said in a statement.
“This is what the minister is doing in taking this action today. Our strong border protection policies have kept Australians safe,” he said, adding he would be making no further comment in view of expected legal proceedings.
Djokovic, 34, the Australian Open defending champion, was included in the draw as top seed and was due to face fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic for his opening match next week.
Looking relaxed, he had practised his serves and returns with his entourage on an empty court at Melbourne Park earlier on Friday, occasionally resting to wipe sweat from his face.
Djokovic, a vaccine sceptic, angered many in Australia when he announced last week that he was heading to Melbourne with a medical exemption to requirements for visitors to be inoculated against COVID-19.
When he arrived, Australian Border Force decided his exemption was invalid and put him in an immigration detention hotel alongside asylum-seekers for several days.
Hawke said he had carefully considered information from Djokovic and Australian authorities, adding the government was “firmly committed to protecting Australia’s borders, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Australia has endured some of the world’s longest lockdowns, has a 90% vaccination rate among adults, and has seen a runaway Omicron outbreak bring nearly a million cases in the last two weeks.
‘PLAYING BY HIS OWN RULES’
Greek world number four Stefanos Tsitsipas, speaking before Hawke’s decision, said Djokovic was “playing by his own rules” and making vaccinated players “look like fools”.
“No-one really thought they could come to Australia unvaccinated,” Tsitsipas told India’s WION news channel.
An online poll by the News Corp media group found that 83% favoured deportation for Djokovic.
“Scott Morrison made the rational decision to send the wealthy tennis star home after calculating the enormous political cost of giving him special treatment,” wrote David Crowe, chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers.
Opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese said: “It should never have come to this … how is it that that visa was granted in the first place if he wasn’t eligible because he wasn’t fully vaccinated?”
Anti-vaxxers have hailed Djokovic as a hero while his family and the Serbian government have portrayed him as a victim of persecution.
Djokovic’s cause was not helped by a wrong entry declaration, where a box was ticked stating he had not travelled abroad in the two weeks before leaving for Australia.
In fact, he had travelled between Spain and Serbia.
Djokovic blamed the error on his agent and acknowledged he also should not have done an interview and photoshoot for a French newspaper on Dec. 18 while infected with COVID-19.
Former immigration official Abul Rizvi told Reuters before the decision that the Section 133C powers were only used in “extreme circumstances” and would mean a three-year entry ban.