Sunday 17 December 2017

Two men accused of bombing popular Bangkok shrine that killed 20 on trial in military court

Policeman photographs debris from an explosion in central Bangkok, Thailand. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)
Policeman photographs debris from an explosion in central Bangkok, Thailand. (AP Photo/Mark Baker, File)

A Thai military court has opened the trial of two foreigners accused of bombing a popular shrine in the centre of Bangkok that killed 20 people and injured more than 120.

The defendants, two ethnic Uighurs of Chinese nationality, were driven straight into the military court building, preventing reporters from approaching them.

The bombing at the Erawan shrine, popular among Chinese and other tourists, on August 17 last yea, was one of the deadliest acts of violence in Thailand in decades. Fourteen of the dead were tourists.

Mieraili Yusufu and Bilal Mohammad, who is also known as Adem Karadag, have pleaded not guilty and at a recent pre-trial appearance they broke down in tears alleging mistreatment by Thai authorities.

They are the only two men in custody out of the 17 people that authorities say were responsible.

"Today is the first day for witness testimony. I think it (the trial) will last until next year. It will take quite some time," said Chuchart Kanpai, the lawyer for one of the defendants.

Thai authorities have said the bombing was revenge by a people-smuggling gang whose activities were disrupted by a crackdown.

But some analysts suspected it might have been the work of Uighur separatists angry that Thailand had forcibly repatriated scores of Uighurs to China, where they may be persecuted.

Many Chinese tourists were among victims of the bombing.

Mr Chuchart has said in the past that Bilal had been tortured to admit that he was the person seen in surveillance video planting the bomb.

Bilal says his captors poured cold water into his nose, threatened to send him back to China and had a barking dog frighten him.

Police say the case against the two men is supported by CCTV footage, witnesses, DNA matching and physical evidence, in addition to their confessions.

Authorities believe Yusufu detonated the bomb minutes after a backpack containing the device was left at the shrine by Bilal.

Since a May 2014 coup installed the military in power, its courts in Thailand have handed criminal cases deemed to involve national security.

The two men have been held at an army base since their arrest in late August and early September 2015. No other details of their interrogation have been revealed.

Some of the 15 other suspects are Turks, with whom Uighurs share ethnic bonds, and Turkey is home to a large Uighur community.

Beijing claims some Uighurs are Islamist terrorists and some have been smuggled out of China to join Islamic State fighters in Syria via Turkey.

The defendants pleaded to be moved to a non-military jail but their torture claims were rejected by the court.

"After investigating these claims, the court finds them to be false and the defendants will remain where they are since this is a case of national security," one of the three judges on the panel ruled.

The judges, who have not been identified in keeping with protocol in military trials, said the defendants' safety may be at risk in a regular prison because of the high-profile nature of the case and that they were safer in military detention.

Press Association

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