Two Uyghur men accused of carrying out a bombing that killed 20 people at a Hindu shrine in Bangkok in 2015 pleaded not guilty Monday, a defense lawyer said, as their trial resumed for the first time since 2017.
Adem Karadag (alias Bilal Mohammed) and Yusufu Mieraili were arrested a few weeks after a bomb blast ripped through the Erawan Shrine, which is also considered sacred by Buddhists and is a major tourist attraction.
The two defendants, who identified themselves as Uyghurs from Urumqi in the Xinjiang region of China, had earlier pled not guilty to charges under a military tribunal, but authorities referred their case to a civilian court late last year.
“They came to the court, pleaded not guilty, and vowed to fight the case,” Chuchart Gunpai, the defense attorney for Karadag, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, by phone Monday.
The case was transferred to the South Bangkok Court after the Thai parliament elected junta leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha as prime minister, completing his transition from coup leader to head of a civilian government following an election in March 2019 that critics claim was engineered to keep him in power.
Also on Monday, officials scheduled a Feb. 18 court hearing for Wanna Suansan, a Thai Muslim woman accused of renting an apartment that the suspects allegedly used to build bombs.
Karadag and Mieraili had been kept under detention since their arrests, Chuchart said, while Wanna was released on bail following her arrest in November 2017.
If convicted, the two men could face the death penalty, lawyers said.
Many also injured
Surveillance camera captured a fireball during the explosion that also injured 125 people on Aug. 17, 2015. The footage also caught a man leaving a backpack on a bench inside the shrine moments before the blast. Police later identified the man as Karadag.
Authorities said a pipe bomb, packed with three kilos of explosives, was planted inside the shrine near a busy intersection. The next day, authorities said, a smaller pipe-bomb also exploded on a passenger pier in Bangkok, but caused no casualties.
Karadag, then 31, was arrested on Aug. 29, 2015, after police said they had found bomb-making materials at an apartment he rented in Bangkok’s suburban Nongjok district. He was charged with criminal offenses ranging from premeditated killing and bomb possession to illegal entry into Thailand.
Mieraili, then 28, was arrested on Sept. 1, 2015, as he tried to flee to neighboring Cambodia, police said. Investigators claimed that he was attempting to acquire bomb-making materials.
The trial had been delayed multiple times as a result of wrangling over courtroom interpreters and translators, Chuchart told BenarNews.
Uyghurs sent back to China
Uyghurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims who mostly live in the Xinjiang region of China but are also spread across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkey. Uyghurs have been leaving China in large numbers to escape alleged persecution and repression by Chinese authorities.
The bombing happened weeks after Thai authorities forcibly sent almost 100 Uyghurs back to China.
Court documents obtained by BenarNews indicated that Karadag could not speak Mandarin or Chinese and would prefer a Uyghur-speaking translator, while Mieraili can communicate in English.
On Monday, the court directed state agencies to arrange for a Uyghur translator for Karadag and an English translator for Mieraili, whose lawyer did not attend the hearing due to another appointment.
After prosecutors presented the evidence, the court set the next hearing for March 2.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.