Rock band critical of Putin is detained in Thailand, fearful of deportation to Russia

The seven band members were arrested last Thursday after playing a concert on the southern resort island of Phuket, reportedly for not having proper working papers

Aleksandr "Shura" Uman, left, and Yegor "Lyova" Bortnik
Aleksandr 'Shura' Uman, left, and Yegor 'Lyova' Bortnik perform during the Bi-2 rock band concert in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011.Pavel Golovkin (AP)

Members of a rock band that has been critical of Moscow’s war in Ukraine remained locked up Tuesday in a Thai immigration jail, fearful that they could be deported to Russia as a reported plan to let them fly to safety in Israel was apparently suspended.

The progressive rock band Bi-2 said on Facebook that it had information that intervention from Russian diplomats caused the plan to be scuttled, even though tickets had already been purchased for their flight.

“The group participants remain detained at the immigration center in a shared cell with 80 people,” the post said. It said they declined to meet with the Russian consul. The Russian press agency RIA Novosti said the refusal was confirmed by Ilya Ilyin, head of the Russian Embassy’s consular section.

The group later said on the Telegram messaging app that its singer, Yegor Bortnik, whose stage name is Lyova, boarded a flight for Israel late Tuesday, but the other members remained in the jail.

The seven band members were arrested last Thursday after playing a concert on the southern resort island of Phuket, reportedly for not having proper working papers. On Facebook, they said all their concerts “are held in accordance with local laws and practices.” Phuket is a popular destination for Russian expats and tourists. After paying a fine, the band members were sent to the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok.

The detained musicians “include Russian citizens as well as dual nationals of Russia and other countries, including Israel and Australia,” the group Human Rights Watch said in a statement Tuesday. Those holding only Russian citizenship are thought to be most at risk.

“The Thai authorities should immediately release the detained members of Bi-2 and allow them to go on their way,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Under no circumstances should they be deported to Russia, where they could face arrest or worse for their outspoken criticisms of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

“It is not known if the Russian authorities have sought the band members’ forcible return to Russia,” Human Rights Watch said. “However, 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.”

Self-exiled Russian opposition politician and a friend of Bi-2, Dmitry Gudkov, told the AP that he had been in touch with lawyers and diplomats in an attempt to secure the band’s release and suggested that pressure to detain and deport them came directly from the Kremlin and the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Russia, Gudkov said, needs an “evocative story to show that they will catch any critic abroad. This is all happening in the run-up to (Russia’s presidential election), and it’s clear that they want to shut everyone up, and that’s why there’s intense pressure going on.”

Russia’s ambassador to Thailand Yevgeny Tomikhin said Russian diplomats were not responsible for the group’s detention.

“It’s not our practice to dictate to anyone. Americans can do this. We don’t behave like that and don’t make such requests,” Tomikhin was quoted as telling the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

There have been no public statements from Thai officials on the situation.

Bi-2 has 1.01 million subscribers to its YouTube channel and 376,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.

Andrei Lugovoi, a member of the lower house of Russia’s parliament, called the band members “scum” for their criticism of Russia’s military operations in Ukraine.

“Let the guys get ready: soon they will be playing and singing on spoons and on metal plates, tap dancing in front of their cellmates,” Lugovoi said on Telegram. “Personally, I would be very happy to see this.”

Britain has accused Lugovoi of involvement in the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, who died in London in 2006 after being poisoned with tea laced with radioactive polonium-210.

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