Dissident Russian-Belarusian rock band held in Thailand fly to Israel

A popular Russian-Belarussian rock band which opposes Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine has flown to Israel after facing threats of deportation in Thailand.

Bi-2 confirmed on their official Facebook page on Thursday they have left the country over fears they could be deported to Russia, where they have fallen out of favour with the regime after criticism of Mr Putin and his war in Ukraine.

“All musicians of the Bi-2 group have safely left Thailand and are heading to Tel Aviv,” read the post on Facebook. No further details were provided.

Thailand’s National Security Council, chaired by prime minister Srettha Thavisin, took charge of the case on Wednesday.

Earlier, Thai immigration officials detained seven members of the group for working without permits in Phuket. Since then, the band reported that their members were transferred to Bangkok and were incarcerated.

Lead vocalist Igor Bortnik was labelled a “foreign agent” by Russian officials after his criticism of Mr Putin. Hundreds of musicians have reportedly left Russia after Moscow invaded Ukraine.

The Guardian reported that Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the band of sponsoring terrorism after their support of Ukraine.

Thailand has been cracking down on dissident Russian artists before the Bi-2 detentions. Authorities in Phuket called off performances by two renowned Russian standup comedians, Maxim Galkin and Ruslan Beliy, who are also known for their anti-war stance.

Both comedians have been labelled as “foreign agents” by the Kremlin.

It was earlier reported that Israeli diplomats had offered the rock band to travel to Tel Aviv but it was later denied after the intervention of the Russian consul.

“Today, after a visit from high-ranking diplomats from the Russian embassy, the group representatives were informed that the deportation decision to Israel has been cancelled,” Bi-2 said in a statement on Telegram.

The organisers of the band’s Thailand concerts, VPI Event, alleged that the Russian consulate has been actively campaigning to cancel the concerts since December last year. They also reported experiencing “unprecedented pressure” in their efforts to secure the release of the band.

Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya wrote on X/Twitter: “I’m worried about the situation involving the Belarus-born rock band Bi-2. It’s now absolutely clear that Russia is behind the operation to deport the band.”

Bi-2’s YouTube channel has more than one million subscribers and on Spotify, they boast of 378k monthly listeners.

Human Rights Watch had earlier said “under no circumstances should they [the band members] be deported to Russia, where they could face arrest or worse for their outspoken criticisms” of Mr Putin and the war.

Elaine Pearson, HRW’s Asia director, said that “amid repression in Russia reaching new heights, Russian authorities have used transnational repression – abuses committed against nationals beyond a government’s jurisdiction – to target activists and government critics abroad with violence and other unlawful actions”.

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