’Free Novak’ alternate with ’free refugees’ - Serbian supporters, refugee advocates gather outside Djokovic's detention centre
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by Andrew Leeson/Najma Sambul
Melbourne - As rain pelts the crowd outside Novak Djokovic's detention centre in Melbourne, shouts of "free Novak" alternate with "free refugees" as fans stand alongside activists and anti-vaccine protesters.
The vaccine-sceptic tennis ace was placed in the centre earlier this week, his visa revoked for failing to meet Australia's tough pandemic entry restrictions.
In the crowd of about 50 people that gathered for a second day of protest Friday, some displayed larger-than-life posters of the nine-time Australian Open champion while others held anti-vaccine placards. A group called "Grandmothers for Refugees" voiced support for migrants detained by the government.
Draped in flags and playing nationalistic songs, some Serbians in the crowd celebrated Orthodox Christmas Day at the protest.
"There would obviously be a lot more people here if people did not have family obligations today," said Djokovic supporter Sash Aleksic.
"You know, a lot of people don't like him, and they have their right to not like him. But what's he really done? They reckon he's arrogant because what, because he wins?"
Aleksic shared the views of some anti-government protesters in the crowd who oppose Australia's Covid-19 policies.
"Our human rights have gone out the window... and they (are) using the medical excuses."
One man held up an anti-vaccine poster that read: "Free the Novax legend".
It is unclear how long Djokovic - who has declared himself against vaccines and claimed to have an exemption - will be held at the Melbourne facility.
A court is set to hear his legal challenge against his visa cancellation on Monday.
Officially known as an "alternative place of detention", the facility is home to around 32 migrants who are trapped in Australia's hardline immigration system.
Detainees cannot leave and nobody is allowed in or out except staff.
The building, which was previously the Park Hotel, was graffitied with the slogan "free them all" by refugee supporters on Thursday night, when two people were arrested as police tried to clear the area.
A detainee had stuck up a sign reading "I am looking for my freedom" on one of the windows.
The facility gained notoriety last year when a fire in the building forced refugees and asylum seekers to be evacuated, and maggots were allegedly found in the food.
Detainee Mehdi Ali told AFP on Thursday that Djokovic is his favourite tennis player, and that he was saddened by the prospect of the star being held there.
"The media will talk about us more, the whole world probably, which is so sad, just because Djokovic would be here for a few days," he said.
In the mishmash of messages outside the detention centre, hovering between the megaphones and flags, one person held up a somewhat incongruent poster embellished with three red hearts that read: "Free hugs".