Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

As rain pours down the crowd outside Novak Djokovic’s detention center in Melbourne, shouts of “free Novak” are interspersed with “free refugees” as supporters stand next to activists and anti-vaccine protesters.

The vaccine-skeptical tennis bait was placed in the middle earlier this week, his visa revoked because he did not comply with Australia’s difficult access restrictions for pandemics.

In the crowd of about 50 people who gathered on Friday for a second day of protest, some posters of the nine-time Australian Open champion while others held anti-vaccine posters.

A group called Grandmothers for Refugees has expressed support for people detained by the government.

Draped in flags and playing nationalist songs, some Serbs in the crowd celebrated Orthodox Christmas at the rally.

It is unclear how long Djokovic – who has declared himself against compulsory vaccination and received a medical exemption – will be detained at the Melbourne facility.

A court will hear its legal challenge against its visa cancellation on Monday.

djokovic fansSupporters of Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic gather outside the Park Hotel [Loren Elliott/Reuters]

The Park Hotel

Just four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the luxury city hotels where most of the other players stay at the Australian Open, stands the Park Hotel, a gray five-storey building with closed windows in a city center, officially known as a “alternative place of detention”.

Inside the second floor, about 30 men from various countries who were evacuated for medical treatment in 2020 from Australian detention centers in the impoverished South Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, are now trapped in Australia’s harsh immigration system.

Detainees cannot leave and no one is allowed in or left out except staff.

The building was graffitied Thursday night by refugee supporters with the slogan “liberate them all” when two people were arrested while police tried to clear the area.

A detainee pasted a sign with the caption “I seek my freedom” on one of the windows.

Australia Detention CenterSigns hang in the windows of the Park Hotel [Sandra Sanders/Reuters]

The facility gained notoriety last year when a fire in the building forced refugees and asylum seekers to evacuate, and maggots were allegedly found in the food.

“We are stuck in our room. There is no fresh air. We have no place for training. There is no gym here. It is very difficult, “said Hossein Latifi, a 32-year-old Iranian who was detained in Nauru in 2013.

Australia has for decades had a mandatory detention policy for anyone arriving without a visa, and to prevent people from arriving by boat, it has set up foreign detention centers in Nauru and on PNG’s Manus Island.

Manus was closed in 2016 after being deemed illegal while the Nauru Center remains open.

In response to critics, in 2019 the government began allowing critically ill refugees to be temporarily transferred to Australia for medical treatment.

Latifi was brought to Australia in 2020 and initially detained in another facility before being moved to the Park Hotel four months ago. He said he did not know how long he would be detained there or where he could go next.

“We are refugees, we are innocent people – we have not committed any crime. They are holding me like a hostage here, ”Latifi told Reuters by telephone from his room, recording a video of a group of about 100 people across the street calling for Djokovic and the refugees to be released.

Australia Detention CenterPro-refugee protesters protest at Park Hotel [Loren Elliott/Reuters]

Some of the group of asylum seekers have been detained at the hotel for almost two years, with several complaining about conditions, including poor catering.

“It’s such a low quality and we were also served with maggots and mold in our bread,” says Adnan Choopani, another Iranian who was first detained nine years ago when he was 15.

The hotel is also used to quarantine travelers who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Choopani and Latifi both wished Djokovic well, though Latifi noted that the tennis superstar was being held for “just a few days”, rather than nine years.

Choopani said he drew some strength from the spotlight that the well-known new resident put on the hotel.

“I do not wish Australian detention on anyone,” said Choopani. “Novak, you are not alone. You have many supporters, we love you, we want to see you successful … we wish you all the best and wish you freedom, as we wish ourselves. ”

Djokovic’s detention provoked international inquiry, with the Serbian government demanding explanations.

“Djokovic is not a criminal, terrorist or illegal migrant, but has been treated as such by the Australian authorities causing an understandable outrage to his supporters and citizens of Serbia,” a statement from the Foreign Ministry said.

The country’s president, prime minister and foreign minister made a series of nationalist – voiced remarks full of anger over the treatment of the national hero.

His father, Srdjan Djokovic, said in fiery remarks at a Belgrade rally that a crowd in his son was the victim of a “political witch hunt” and “corona fascism”.

His mother, Djina Djokovic, told reporters at the rally: “They are detaining him as a prisoner. It’s just not fair. It is not human. “

Australia Detention CenterThe hotel is also used to quarantine travelers who have tested positive for COVID-19 [Sandra Sanders/Reuters]

In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended the revocation of Djokovic’s visa.

“Rules are rules and there are no special cases,” he said.

Many Australians, who had endured nearly two years of travel bans and lockouts, were furious when they heard the player had been given a vaccine release.

Tennis players looked divided, but some gathered around Novak.

“Look, I definitely believe in acting, I was vaccinated because of others and for my mother’s health, but how we handle Novak’s situation is bad, really bad,” said Australian star Nick Kyrgios.

“He’s one of our great champions, but in the end he’s a human being,” he said on social media.

Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, said he felt sorry for Djokovic, but added that the Serb could play “without a problem” if he wanted to.

“I think if he wanted to, he would have played without a problem here in Australia,” said Nadal.

“He made his own decisions, and everyone is free to make their own decisions, but then there are certain consequences. Of course, I do not like the situation that is happening. Somehow I feel sorry for him. But at the same time, he has known the conditions for many months, so he makes his own decision. “

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