Feb 2, 2024
Bi-2 - in Israel
A dissident Russian-Belarusian rock band critical of the war in Ukraine have left Thailand for Israel after fears they would be deported to Russia under suspected pressure from the Kremlin.
Seven members of the Bi-2 group were detained by Thai immigration authorities last Wednesday on the resort island of Phuket for working without a permit. The band were touring in Phuket, a holiday destination popular with Russian tourists.
After paying a fine, the band members were sent to an immigration detention centre in Bangkok.
Human rights groups had urged the Thai government not to deport Bi-2 to Russia, where the members could face severe persecution.
Bi-2’s arrests grew into a larger diplomatic scandal as several of the group’s members held Israeli passports.
Speaking in the arrival hall of Ben Gurion International airport in Tel Aviv, the Bi-2 guitarist and singer Aleksandr “Shura” Uman thanked Israeli and American diplomats, as well as human rights organisations, for their work in bringing them to Israel.
The Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, praised diplomatic efforts that had enabled all the musicians to leave Thailand for Israel.
Bi-2’s lead singer, Igor Bortnik, accused Moscow of orchestrating the band’s arrest.
“We were all told that there was a Russian trace, a special order from the Russian consulate for the band Bi-2 to extradite us to Russia,” Bortnik said.
Citing a source with direct knowledge of the incident, the Guardian previously reported that Bi-2 were detained in Phuket after a request by Vladimir Sosnov, the Russian consul in Phuket.
Russia has denied any role in getting the band arrested.
However, when asked about Bi-2’s arrest, Maria Zakharova, a Russian foreign ministry spokesperson, accused the group of sponsoring terrorism by publicly supporting Ukraine, raising fears they may face criminal charges in Russia.
The Kremlin also has a long track record of cracking down on artists critical of the war, including those working abroad.
Observers said Bi-2’s arrests could be a stark warning to other artists who criticise Moscow but perform abroad, despite the Kremlin’s efforts to frame them as “unpatriotic”.
Bi-2 have been one of the most successful Russian-language rock bands since the end of the Soviet Union, and are known for their condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Their lead singer, Bortnik, was labelled by Russian authorities as a “foreign agent” after he criticised Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, online.
Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, praised the decision not to send the musicians back to Russia.
“Very good news that all band members of the Russian-Belorussian rock band Bi-2 were able to leave Thailand, and go safely to Israel,” Robertson wrote on X.
“Appreciate that the Thai foreign ministry recognized the importance of upholding human rights principles, & didn’t send them to face persecution & worse in Russia.”
Editor, Guardian US