11 July 2024

A Russian-Belarusian band that denounces Moscow’s Ukraine invasion arrived in Israel Thursday after being held in Thailand on immigration charges that had sparked fears they could be deported to Russia and face prison.

The band, Bi-2, have criticised Russian President Vladimir Putin and left Russia in protest over the war in Ukraine. Their arrest in Thailand last week sparked fears they would be sent to Russia, which harshly punishes public criticism of its Ukraine campaign.

Russian independent media reported that Moscow’s diplomats were demanding the band be sent to Russia. “We’re free!” Bi-2 said on its Facebook page on Thursday, ending almost a week of uncertainty over the band’s fate. “Thank you to everyone who fought for and supported us,” it added.

Russia’s independent TV Rain outlet posted a video of the band at an Israeli airport. Several members of the band have dual nationalities, including Israeli and Australian.

Thailand’s National Security Council, chaired by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, took charge of the case on Wednesday.  The band said Wednesday that singer Egor Bortnik, known by his stage name Lyova — had already left Thailand to fly to Israel.

After landing in Israel they met with Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who said in a statement that the episode showed “the music will win”. Human rights advocates in Thailand cautiously welcomed the news.

“Even though they (are) all safe, we still want Thai authorities to respect arrest procedures strictly,” human rights lawyer Pornpen Khongkachonkiet told AFP. “It could (have) happened to me, you, and others without international attention as this case got.”

Pornpen said the band’s detention was another sign of creeping transnational repression within the kingdom. The case had alarmed Russians critical of Putin living abroad. Thailand is a popular destination for both Russian holidaymakers and emigrants.

– ‘Only disgust’ –

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Thailand was “vulnerable to effective manipulation by larger states pursuing transnational repression”.    However, he said international pressure — and global economic concerns — had played a significant role.

“Thailand realised that they didn’t need to make a lot of enemies by doing Russia’s bidding in this case,” Robertson told AFP. “Russia may be a transnational repression superpower but they’re an economic weakling, and Thailand knows that.”

The band were held last week after they played a gig on Phuket, a southern island popular with Russian holidaymakers. Thai officials said they were arrested for performing without the correct work permits and transferred to an immigration detention centre in Bangkok.

The organisers of the band’s Thailand concerts — which also included a show in Pattaya — said all the necessary permits were obtained, but the band had been issued tourist visas in error.

VPI Event accused the Russian consulate of having waged a campaign to cancel the concerts since December, and said they had faced “unprecedented pressure” as they sought the band’s release.

Bi-2 is well known in Russia. Several of their concerts were cancelled in 2022 after they refused to play at a venue with banners supporting the war in Ukraine, after which they left Russia.

One of the band’s founders has openly denounced the Putin government, saying it makes him feel “only disgust” and accusing the long-serving leader of having “destroyed” Russia.

HRW earlier this week said the band would face “persecution” if returned to Russia — pointing to comments by a Kremlin foreign ministry spokeswoman accusing the band of “sponsoring terrorism”. The rights group said Russia’s foreign ministry last year designated frontman Bortnik a “foreign agent” for opposing the war in Ukraine.

By Agence France Presse