Serb politicians and celebrities have described the treatment of Novak Djokovic as shameful scapegoating, as the foreign ministry in Belgrade suggested the world tennis No 1 had been “lured to Australia … to be humiliated.”
The 34-year-old champion, who was born in the Serb capital, is in detention in an immigration hotel in Melbourne pending a legal challenge to Australia’s decision on Wednesday to cancel a visa allowing him to play in the Australian Open.
In an op ed for the news portal Iskra, reprinted by the pro-government tabloid Informer, the acclaimed Serbian film-maker Emir Kusturica argued Djokovic’s detention was “not just a lesson to the noble Serb”, but to everyone.
Kusturica said the “arrest of Novak Djokovic, first among the free, a rebel who does not want the chains of the new world and believes in a more just order” recalled the plot of a movie in which prominent citizens were arrested as a lesson to the rest.
Australian officials have said the player, who has refused to reveal his Covid vaccination status but previously said he was opposed to vaccination, was refused entry because he failed to meet exemption requirements. They have also said the player is free to leave the country whenever he chooses.
“Hasn’t the world already become a prison of which barbed wire is the most expressive symbol?” Kusturica asked. “Aren’t the punishments for those who refuse to be jabbed just another step by the world government?”
The president of the Serbian parliament, Ivica Dačić, a former prime minister whose Socialist party of Serbia is a partner in the country’s coalition government, said Djokovic was enduring “despicable political harassment”.
Any country in the world “would gladly give citizenship to Mr Djokovic, let alone let him visit for a tournament”, Dacic Dačić said, calling Australia’s behaviour “shameful” and the result of “political instability in that country since elections are approaching”.
The player’s family, who on Thursday compared him to Jesus and accused Australian authorities of “trying to crucify him”, called for a mass protest against his continuing detention on Friday, when Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas.
“The family of Novak Djokovic calls on all fans and supporters of the best tennis player in the world, who is in a delicate situation, in front of the Belgrade city assembly,” the family said in a joint statement.
“The biggest Christian holiday is an opportunity to show the significance of the community, to send support from Belgrade, and to show how much support the best tennis player in the world has in its own country.”
The foreign ministry said in a statement that the Serbian public “has a strong impression that Djokovic is a victim of a political game against his will, and that he was lured to travel to Australia in order to be humiliated”.
It added: “Novak Djokovic is not a criminal, terrorist or illegal migrant, but he was treated that way by the Australian authorities, which is causing understandable indignation of his fans and citizens of Serbia.”
The Serbian government sent a formal protest note to its embassy in Canberra for transmission to the Australian government, and the foreign minister Nemanja Starović delivered a verbal protest to Australia’s ambassador to Serbia, Daniel Emery.
The foreign ministry said Serbia did not want to influence the upcoming court decision but expected “the authorities of the country, in the spirit of good bilateral relations, to allow Djokovic to spend (time) in better accommodation”.
Djokovic’s wife, Jelena, posted a photo of the couple embracing on a beach to mark Orthodox Christmas, saying: “The only law that we should all respect across every single border is love and respect for another human being.”
Milivoje Pantovic is a producer with N1 Television in Belgrade.