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Russian anti-war rockers face deportation from Thailand

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A famous Russian Belarusian rock band has been detained in Thailand and some of its members are now facing deportation to Russia, where they could be prosecuted for their views critical of the war in Ukraine.

Members of Bi-2 were taken into police custody, and are being held in what the band described as a crowded cell, last week after a concert on the island of Phuket, a post on the band’s Telegram channel said.

The band was told there was a problem with the documents filed by concert organizers, for which they were fined following a court hearing, the post said. They paid the fine immediately, the band said, but Thailand’s immigration police got involved, and they have remained in detention, with a possible threat of some of them being deported to Russia.

The band canceled scheduled concert dates in Russia in May 2022, shortly after Russian media reported the band refused to perform at a concert in the Russian city of Omsk in front of a pro-war banner onstage.

They have been touring primarily abroad since, and played in Turkey days before their two concerts in Thailand last week, and tour dates on their website suggested that they intended to perform abroad at least through August.

The detention of the band follows Russian media reports earlier this month that two Russian comedians, also outspoken about the war, had their shows canceled in Thailand.

It could signal that Moscow is demonstratively tightening its grip on anti-war dissidents abroad as its war in Ukraine nears the two-year mark. The Kremlin has sought to portray any public figures who do not condone the invasion and continue to criticize Russia in exile as “scum and traitors.”

Thailand has a repressive monarchy given to harsh punishments for its critics, and the Thai government has maintained friendly diplomatic relations with Russia. In October, Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin held a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a conference in China, during which Putin called Thailand “Russia’s oldest partner in Southeast Asia.”

The band said they suspect “outside pressure” played a significant role in their detention. “We know that the reasons for this pressure are our work, our views, our position,” they said in Sunday’s statement.

Detained members of Bi-2 include citizens of Russia, Israel and Australia, the band said.

In an update Tuesday, the band said there was a decision to deport them to Israel, and they had purchased flights out, but “after a visit by high-ranking diplomats from the Russian consulate,” the band’s representatives were told that the decision on deportation to Israel had been canceled, and they were still in diplomatic limbo.

NBC News reached out to the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment.

Russia’s ambassador to Thailand, Yevgeny Tomikhin, told pro-Kremlin newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda on Tuesday that Moscow did not request the group’s detention.

Later Tuesday, the band said its frontman Yegor Bortnik, also known by stage name Lyova, was allowed to leave for Israel, but remaining members of the band were “denied a previously agreed flight to Israel” and are still in the migration prison “in a cramped cell for 80 people.”

The band previously said that Bortnik was not a Russian citizen. 

NBC News reached out to the band for further comment.

Bi-2 is one of a small cohort of Russian musicians who have been openly critical of the war in Ukraine.

They released an anti-war song in June 2022, and Bortnik was designated a foreign agent by Russia last May, a label Moscow has bestowed on dozens of Russian public figures who have been outspoken about the war.

The band has been touring the world in a form of self-exile, performing for Russian expats abroad, including the sizable Russian community of expats and tourists in Phuket.

As outspoken critics of the war and the Kremlin, if any band members are deported to Russia, they could face arrest under the country’s draconian wartime legislation that penalizes any criticism of the war in Ukraine.

Already, Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian lawmaker whom the United Kingdom suspects of being involved in the killing of ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko, has threatened band members with jail time if they are returned to Russia.

The band said representatives of Israel’s Foreign Ministry in Thailand were also involved in trying to help their ordeal. “At the moment I can only say that we are assisting all the Israeli citizens who are in detention in Thailand,” Lior Haiat, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told NBC News late Tuesday. Haiat also confirmed Wednesday that Bortnik had landed in Israel.

The band said Sunday the Australian consul who came to see them in detention was not allowed to see them. NBC News reached out to the Australian foreign ministry on the case, but did not hear back.

Thai Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara said Wednesday the country’s national security council was probing the band’s case. Thailand’s Foreign Ministry did not provide any additional comment when approached by NBC News.

Col. Tippawan Yoma with the country’s immigration police also told NBC News on Wednesday that the band members remain detained in Bangkok, and one member was deported — but not to Russia. Yoma would not provide more detail, calling it a “sensitive matter.”

Human Rights Watch has called for Thailand not to deport the band members to Russia, saying it “has an international legal obligation not to forcibly return anyone who would face the threat of torture if returned.”

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

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