Update: The Thai authorities ultimately allowed all seven Bi-2 band members to leave Thailand for Israel.
(Bangkok) – Members of the exiled Russian-Belarusian rock band Bi-2 face persecution for their public criticism of the Russian government if Thailand deports them to Russia, Human Rights Watch said today. Thai police arrested the seven band members for allegedly performing a concert without the proper work authorizations and later moved them to an immigration detention center pending deportation.
“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.”
Bi-2’s seven members include Russian citizens as well as dual nationals of Russia and other countries, including Israel and Australia.
Bi-2 posted a Facebook statement on January 28, 2024, that Thai police had detained the group on January 24, shortly after they performed a concert in Phuket, in southern Thailand. The police alleged that the men did not have the correct legal permits to perform at a show in Thailand and seized their passports.
On January 25, after spending the night in a detention center in Phuket, the band members were put on trial. The court ordered them to pay a fine, which the group said they paid on the same day. The band stated in its Facebook post that during their members’ interactions with police and at the court, they were not provided with an interpreter, and they did not understand the Thai-language court documents related to their case.
The group members were then transferred from Phuket to an immigration detention center in Bangkok, where they are awaiting deportation to their respective countries of origin.
The Russian government views the group as a threat to national security. Following their detention in Thailand, Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said that the group had allegedly “sponsored terrorism” by condemning Russia and publicly supporting Ukraine.
In July 2022, a member of the Russian parliament accused the band members of “discrediting [the Russian] military” and called on the country's chief investigation agency to open a criminal investigation into their “anti-Russian stance” and “discreditation” attempts. In May 2023, Russia’s Justice Ministry designated the frontman of the band, Egor Bortnik (whose stage name is Leva), a “foreign agent” for “opposing the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine, [and] making negative statements about Russia, its citizens and authorities.”
Bi-2 said in their statement that “outside [Russian] pressure played a significant role in our detention. We know that the reason for this pressure is [retaliation] for our creativity, our views, our position.”
It is not known if the Russian authorities have sought the band members’ forcible return to Russia. 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.
As a party to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Thailand has an international legal obligation not to forcibly return anyone who would face the threat of torture if returned. In February 2023, Thailand’s Act on Prevention and Suppression of Torture and Enforced Disappearances codified this obligation in domestic law. The law stipulates that the authorities shall not “expel, return, or extradite a person to another State, if there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be in danger of being subjected to torture, to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or to enforced disappearance.”
The Thai government should not deport any of the band members to Russia. If forcibly returned, they would most likely face arbitrary arrest and detention, possible mistreatment in custody, politically motivated criminal charges, and unfair trials, Human Rights Watch said.
“There’s grave concern that the Russian authorities seek to punish these artists for speaking out against the Kremlin and criticizing Russia’s war against Ukraine,” Pearson said. “The Thai government should not permit the deportation of these activists to a place where they are likely to face persecution.”