Russian rockers critical of Putin’s Ukraine war ‘free’ in Israel after Thailand deportation under likely Kremlin pressure

A dissident Russian rock band angered by Moscow’s war in Ukraine has arrived in Israel after being deported from Thailand under suspected pressure from the Kremlin, the performers said on Thursday.

The seven members of the band Bi-2 were arrested last week 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 an immigration detention centre in Bangkok.

Members of the Russian band Bi-2 arrive at the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. Photo: EPA-EFE

Speaking in the arrival hall of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, guitarist and singer Aleksandr “Shura” Uman of Bi-2 said the band was doing well and very tired after their ordeal. He also called the conditions he and his band faced in a Thai jail as “horrible.”

“We are free, and we will keep moving forward,” Uman said.

Uman thanked the Israeli, American and Australian diplomats, as well as human rights organizations, for their work to bring them to Israel. A handful of supporters met their early-morning flight with signs to welcome them to Israel.

Russia has denied it had a hand in trying to get the band deported. However, Moscow has a reputation for cracking down on artists critical of the war, even those working abroad. The Kremlin had previously singled out Uman and another member of Bi-2, Yegor “Lyova” Bortnik.

Aleksandr “Shura” Uman, left, and Yegor “Lyova” Bortnik perform during the Bi-2 concert in Moscow, Russia on December 1, 2011. Photo: AP

On Wednesday night, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz praised diplomatic efforts that enabled all the musicians to leave Thailand for Israel. One band member with Israeli citizenship had returned earlier on Wednesday morning.

Kanchana Patarachoke, a Thai Foreign Ministry spokesperson, acknowledged all the band had left the country in “accordance with their wishes and Thai immigration laws and regulations.”

Five of the seven Bi-2 musicians entered Thailand using Russian passports, police Lieutenant Pakpoom Rojanawipak said. At least four of the members are reportedly Israeli nationals, including the two founders, Uman and Bortnik. The latter is also an Australian citizen.

Bi-2 has more than 1 million subscribers to its YouTube channel and 376,000 monthly listeners on Spotify.

Members of Bi-2, who are opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, sit in a vehicle at Ben Gurion International Airport in Israel on Thursday, after arriving from Thailand where the band and the Thai police said they were threatened with deportation to Moscow. Photo: Reuters

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

The decision to allow the band to go to Israel was applauded by activists.

“Bangkok was right to refuse Moscow’s demands to send these activist artists back to face certain persecution and worse in Russia,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director.

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