Dissident Russian Rock Band Departs Thailand for Israel

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Dissident Russian Rock Band Departs Thailand for Israel

Moscow had requested the extradition of the group, whose members were detained for violating Thai immigration laws.

Dissident Russian Rock Band Departs Thailand for Israel

A photo of the Russian rock band Bi-2 posted on the group’s Facebook page along with the announcement that they had departed Thailand for Israel, February 1, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/Би-2/B-2

A dissident Russian rock band detained in Thailand for violating the country’s immigration laws has departed for Israel, avoiding deportation back to Russia, where the musicians would have faced ill-treatment for their anti-war views.

Thai immigration officials yesterday confirmed that members of Bi-2 had flown out of the country. BenarNews quoted Pol. Lt. Gen. Phanthana Nuchanart, the deputy commander of the Immigration Bureau, as saying that the group had “already departed, heading to Israel.”

The band confirmed the departure in a post on Facebook, which said that all seven members of the band were on their way to Tel Aviv, and would play a series of dates in the Middle East and Europe over the coming months.

“We are free!” the post stated. “Friends, thank you to everyone who fought and supported us!” It went on to thank the Israeli, Australian, and United States governments, as well as diplomats from Germany, Poland, and Lithuania and the human rights group Amnesty International, for facilitating their departure.

Bi-2, which has openly opposed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, was detained on January 24, shortly after they performed a concert in Phuket, in southern Thailand. According to a statement posted on the group’s Facebook page, the police alleged that the men did not have the correct legal permits to perform and seized their passports. They were subsequently transferred to an immigration detention center in Bangkok, pending their deportation to their respective countries of origin.

While all of Bi-2’s seven members are Russian citizens, some also hold citizenship in Israel and Australia. Nonetheless, this raised very real concerns that they would be sent back to Russia, where they have courted friction with President Vladimir Putin’s establishment by publicly opposing the war in Ukraine. Last May, Human Rights Watch reported, Russia’s Justice Ministry designated Egor Bortnik, the band’s frontman, a “foreign agent” for “opposing the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, [and] making negative statements about Russia, its citizens and authorities.”

Sure enough, after the band was detained last month, Russia formally demanded their extradition. Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, claiming that the had allegedly “sponsored terrorism” by publicly supporting the Ukrainian cause.

As Mark S. Cogan wrote in these pages earlier this week, Bi-2 had reason to worry, given Thailand’s long and dishonorable track record of deporting dissidents and asylum seekers, including Uyghur Muslims from China and Hmong refugees from Laos, at the request of authoritarian governments.

In the end, Western and Israeli pressure seems to have convinced the Thai government not to accede to Russia’s extradition demand. This was probably not too difficult a decision for the Thai authorities to make, given the outcry that would have followed from Thailand’s closest Western partners. It is also true that while Thailand enjoys broadly positive relations with Russia, its economic dependence on Russia is small enough that it can afford to deny Moscow’s request. The fact that members of the ban were dual citizens also offered a straightforward pretext for sending them elsewhere.

As Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said in an emailed statement yesterday, “human rights concerns won out in Thailand’s decision to let all the Bi-2 band members travel to the safety of Israel.” Were a similar request to come from China, with which Thailand has a much more substantial economic relationship, the outcome could well have been different.