Shocked Serbs have questioned if Australia “has a soul” as tennis star Novak Djokovic spends the first day of Orthodox Christmas alone in detention pending a legal challenge to the cancellation of his Australian Open visa.
Daily newspaper Blic decried “inhumane conditions” and a “day of shame for Australia” as Djokovic’s family likened his struggle to that of Jesus on the cross, rallying support at home with protests for his release outside parliament.
Wife Jelena Djokovic shared a Christmas wish for everyone to be “healthy” and “together with families” in an Instagram post on Friday morning, while Serbia’s foreign secretary, Nemanja Starovic, urged that the tennis star be allowed to spend the festive period in better accommodation.
Sources close to the matter told The Independent that a move was unlikely to happen.
Orthodox Christmas, which is celebrated by around 12 per cent of the world’s Christians over three days, began on Friday. It is usually a time for family meals and church visits.
“We wish we are all together today, but my consolation is that at least we are healthy. And we will grow from this experience,” Mrs Djokovic posted to her 570,000 followers, alongside a picture of the couple embracing on a beach.
“The only law that we should all respect across every single border is love and respect for another human being.”
Tabloid Alo! accused Australia of villainy over the Christmas quarantine, running with the headline: “Villains, do you even have a soul?”, while other outlets claimed a priest had not been allowed to enter the hotel to help the star mark the occasion.
The world No 1 tennis player was detained on Wednesday night as he travelled to Melbourne from Dubai to play in the Australian Open. Officials said Djokovic, 34, who has not revealed his Covid-19 vaccination status and previously aired opposition to vaccination, was refused entry because he failed to meet vaccination exemption requirements.
The star broke his silence on Friday to thanks his supporters worldwide, claiming it was “greatly appreciated”.
He is now being held in the Park Hotel in Carlton, Melbourne, an immigration hotel, alongside a number of asylum seekers who have been there for years. He is likely to stay there until Monday, when he will challenge the federal government’s decision to cancel his visa.
Long-term detainees at the Park Hotel have seized on the media attention over the furore to draw attention to their own plight.
“It’s so sad that so many journalists contacted me yesterday to ask me about Djokovic. I’ve been in a cage for nine years, I turn 24 today, and all you want to talk to me about is that,” said Iranian refugee Mehdi Ali, who also stays at the hotel, on Twitter.
Djokovic’s family have claimed he is being “held captive” at the hotel – an accusation Australia denies, saying he is free to leave with the help of border guards. Brother Djordje Djokovic, also a tennis player, told press on Thursday the athlete is being detained in a “dirty room without any belongings”.
The row has become political, and touched on the issue of nationalism. Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vucic said on Thursday the country is taking all measures to end the “harassment” of the tennis player.
“I told our Novak that the whole of Serbia is with him and that our bodies are doing everything to see that the harassment of the world’s best tennis player is brought to an end immediately,” he said in a statement.
Support for Djokovic has seen some refer to him on social media as a “freedom fighter” and has been echoed across the Balkans, with messages of solidarity posted online by Chicago Bulls player and NBA all-star Nikola Vucevic, from Montenegro, and former Liverpool player Dejan Lovren, from Croatia, who is against Covid vaccinations.
Claudiu Tarziu, co-leader of Romania’s far right AUR party, which is against Covid restrictions such as health passports, referred to Djokovic’s detention as part of a global “sanitary dictatorship”.
Organisers of the year’s Australian Open said prior to the arrival of players that all would have to be vaccinated to take part. It is believed – but yet to be confirmed – that Djokovic was granted an exemption to play based on having previously had Covid; however, recovery is not recognised by the federal government.
Djokovic’s father, Srdjan Djokovic, has previously told local media that the tennis tournament’s stance on vaccines is tantamount to “blackmail”.
“As far as vaccines and non-vaccines are concerned, it is the personal right of each of us whether we will be vaccinated or not. No one has the right to enter into our intimacy,” he was quoted by Serbian website B92 in November.
Less than 50 per cent of the population of Serbia has received two Covid vaccinations, with mistrust identified as a significant factor in resistance.
Eastern Europe and the Balkans have been at the forefront of European vaccine hesitancy, with online disinformation, support for coronavirus hoaxes and conspiracy theories rife.
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