Suspects brought to court for start of Bangkok shrine bombing trial

BANGKOK - Two foreigners accused of carrying out a deadly bombing of a Bangkok landmark last year were brought to a military court Tuesday for the start of a highly anticipated trial that's been marred by one accused claiming he was tortured to elicit a confession.

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Reporters were allowed inside the courtroom, but were asked to leave their phones, notebooks and pens outside, and officials did not announce to those outside whether the trial had begun. The two men - Bilal Mohammad and Mieraili Yusufu - are facing 10 charges, including conspiracy to explode bombs and commit premeditated murder.

It is expected that they will enter their pleas on Tuesday, which will be followed by questioning and the formal trial. Police are hunting for another 15 suspects, but no progress has been announced.

Authorities have described the suspects as ethnic Uighurs from western China's far western Xinjiang region. They say the Aug. 17 bombing of the Erawan Shrine was revenge by a people-smuggling gang whose activities were disrupted by a crackdown. However, some analysts suspected it might have been the work of Uighur separatists who were angry that Thailand in July forcibly repatriated more than 100 Uighurs to China, where they may be persecuted.

The Erawan Shrine is popular among Chinese tourists, and many were among the victims. Twenty people, including 14 foreign tourists, were killed and more than 120 injured in the bombing, one of the deadliest acts of violence in Bangkok in decades.

An official told reporters before they were led inside the courtroom that authorities were trying to arrange for translators, one who would translate the proceedings in Thai to English, and another who would translate English to the Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) language, which the defendants had asked for. At their last court appearance in November, the defendants had refused to take a plea because there was no Uighur translator available.

On Monday, Bilal's lawyer, Chuchart Kanpai, told The Associated Press that Bilal avows he was tortured by security personnel into falsely confessing to the attack.

Chuchart said that his client would deny all charges brought before the court except that of illegal entry into Thailand.

"He was tortured by officials. He didn't know if they were soldiers or police because they were non-uniformed," Chuchart said. "Back then, he confessed so that he wouldn't be tortured again. He was just saying it."

Yusufu, whose intentions for his court appearance were not known, was arrested Sept. 1 near the Thai-Cambodia border. He was carrying a Chinese passport that indicated he was from China's Xinjiang region.

Bilal was initially identified as Adem Karadag, the name on a fake Turkish passport he had when he was arrested Aug. 29.

Police say the case against the two suspects is supported by closed-circuit television footage, witnesses, DNA matching and physical evidence, in addition to their confessions. Police believe Yusufu detonated the bomb minutes after a backpack containing the device was left at the shrine by a yellow-shirted man they suspect was Bilal.

Military courts in Thailand have handled criminal cases deemed to involve national security since a May 2014 coup.


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