ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Dissident Russian rock band Bi-2 lands in Israel after deportation from Thailand

Bands members, four of whom are reportedly Israeli, arrested last week after concert in Phuket following suspected Kremlin pressure

Aleksandr 'Shura' Uman, left, and Egor Bortnik perform during the Bi-2 rock band concert in Moscow, Russia, December 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)
Aleksandr 'Shura' Uman, left, and Egor Bortnik perform during the Bi-2 rock band concert in Moscow, Russia, December 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin, File)

AP — 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 Thursday.

Speaking in the arrival hall of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, guitarist and singer Aleksandr “Shura” Uman of the band Bi-2 said the band members were 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 welcoming them to Israel.

On Wednesday night, 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 Wednesday morning.

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

Exterior of the immigration detention center in Bangkok, Thailand, January 30, 2024, where members of Bi-2, a visiting dissident rock band that has been critical of Moscow’s war in Ukraine, were held. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The seven members of 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 the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok.

Five of the seven Bi-2 musicians entered Thailand using Russian passports, police Lt. Pakpoom Rojanawipak told The Associated Press. At least four of the members are reportedly Israeli nationals, including the two founders, Uman and Yegor “Lyova” Bortnik. The second is also an Australian citizen.

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

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 Bortnik.

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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