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Russian Rock Band in Thailand Deported to Israel


FILE - Rock band Bi-2 performs in Moscow, Dec. 1, 2011.
FILE - Rock band Bi-2 performs in Moscow, Dec. 1, 2011.

Members of the Russian-Belarus rock band Bi-2 who have been held in Thailand on immigration charges have been allowed to fly to Israel amid concerns they would be deported to Russia over the group’s anti-war stance.

The band had been performing a concert in Phuket, a popular island in Thailand, but were arrested by Thai immigration officials for working without a permit last week.

The members were initially held in Phuket before being moved to detention in Bangkok.

Bi-2 has been a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s foreign ministry accused the group of supporting terrorism. Previously Moscow had labeled Yegor “Lyova” Bortnik, the band’s frontman, as a foreign agent over his comments opposing Russian’s war in Ukraine.

Statements of the band’s detention in Thailand have been regularly posted on social media accounts. Some blamed the group’s legal troubles on outside pressure on Thailand.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, said Thailand made the right decision.

“Human rights concerns won out in Thailand’s decision to let all the Bi-2 band members travel to the safety of Israel. Bangkok was right to refuse Moscow’s demands to send these activist artists back to face certain persecution and worse in Russia. But while this particular Russian trans-national repression gambit failed, there is little doubt the Kremlin’s rights-abusing autocrats will keep trying to silence exiled Russian critics by hook or by crook, wherever they can,” he said in a press statement.

The seven-member band, which includes citizens of Russia, Israel and Australia, had been in diplomatic limbo after initial plans to deport them to Israel were canceled. But Bortnik was allowed to fly alone to Tel Aviv earlier this week.

This photo shows the exterior of the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok, Jan. 30, 2024.
This photo shows the exterior of the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok, Jan. 30, 2024.

The band's official Telegram channel confirmed they have left Thailand.

"All musicians of the Bi-2 band have left Thailand safely and are heading to Tel Aviv. Details tomorrow."

Given Thailand’s close relationship with Moscow, there were concerns that the band members could be sent back to Russia or Belarus.

Thailand has not ratified the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention, meaning it has no specific domestic legal framework for protection of urban refugees and asylum-seekers. But Thailand did pass the Act on Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearance in 2022.

“In the enforced disappearance act, in article 13 Thai authorities or officials are not allowed to send anyone or deport anyone to a country if it is believed that those countries are going to violate human rights or human dignity,” Krisanaphong Poothakool, vice president and chairman of the Faculty of Criminology and Justice Administration a Rangsit University, told VOA.

Bangkok and Moscow are close trade partners, and Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin praised the two countries’ long-standing close relationship after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing in October.

Thailand is also a popular holiday destination for Russians. But in recent years, the Southeast Asian country has seen an influx in arrivals of Russians fleeing conscription for the war in Ukraine.

Thailand saw over one million arrivals from Russia in 2023, one of the country’s highest numbers of international visitors. Thai authorities expect that number to double this year after Bangkok extended Russia’s arrival period to 90 days.

Since Putin ordered Russia's full-scale war in Ukraine two years ago, Moscow has been hit with Western sanctions, and international isolation has somewhat impacted the nation’s economy. Russian tourists have been unable to visit a host of Western countries, but Thailand and other Asian countries welcomed arrivals.

Thailand also chose to abstain from a U.N. vote to condemn Russia for its so-called annexation of four territories in Ukraine in 2022.

Mark S. Cogan, Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai University, Japan said Thailand didn’t want to disrupt relations with Israel.

“Thailand has a history of evaluating cases like this based on economic relationships and perceived threats to national security. When the risk is low that it would not violate either, as many were Belarusian and others had dual Israeli citizenship, I think the Thai government had every reason to allow them to get on a flight to Israel,” he told VOA.

“With so many new opportunities, and FTAs (free trade agreements) forthcoming, the environment is different. Srettha was less likely to disrupt a mutually beneficial relationship by securing their release into Israeli hands and maintain a growing relationship with the Netanyahu government,” he said

But Cogan said under Thailand’s previous military government led by Prayut Chan-o-Cha, the decision might have been different.

“It's possible that the result might have been different under Prayut as the landscape was more dire. Prayut around the time of APEC was very concerned about post-pandemic recovery and pleaded with Putin to open up more flights to Thailand. It's very difficult to guess a "what if" scenario, but it would not have been out of character for him to do so,” he added.