Lack of Interpreter Stalls Uyghur Suspects’ Trial in 2015 Bangkok Bombing

An interpreter proposed by the Chinese Embassy is expected to arrive next month, lawyer says.
2021.08.18
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Lack of Interpreter Stalls Uyghur Suspects’ Trial in 2015 Bangkok Bombing
BenarNews

Two Uyghur men facing charges in a bombing that killed 20 people and injured more than 100 at a Hindu shrine in Bangkok are waiting for a courtroom interpreter from China to arrive next month before their trial can resume, two people involved in the case told BenarNews.

Adem Karadag (alias Bilal Mohammed), then 31, and Yusufu Mieraili, then 28, were arrested within two weeks after the three kg. of explosives stuffed into a pipe ripped through the Erawan Shrine in central Bangkok on Aug. 17, 2015.

Since then, however, the legal proceedings against them have been delayed or set back multiple times. Their trial in a criminal court has yet to begin in earnest although they have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

“The court most recently informed us that the interpreter proposed by the Chinese Embassy would likely arrive in September,” Chuchart Kanpai, the lawyer representing Karadag, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, this week. “The defendants disagreed, but the court said they have to follow the arrangement.”

The duo were originally tried in a military court instead of a criminal court in 2016 – a move seen as political by many during the second year of a power grab by General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who had ousted elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in a military coup in May 2014.

Chuchart said the court proceedings had been delayed or disrupted over the years because of a lack of qualified interpreters.

The case was sent to the Bangkok South criminal court in November 2019, after junta leader Prayuth became an elected prime minister after the March 2019 general election which, critics claimed, was engineered to keep him in power. 

Chalida also said that the World Uyghur Congress would try to send a lawyer or a translator to Bangkok to assist the duo.

Some other Uyghurs who live in Thailand feared helping them out due to privacy reasons, she said.

According to the lawyer and an NGO worker assisting Uyghurs in Thailand, Karadag could not speak Chinese and would prefer a Uyghur-speaking translator. At the same time, Mieraili can communicate in English but not fluently.

The two defendants, who identified themselves as Uyghurs from Urumqi in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China pleaded not guilty in 2016 in front of the judges in the military court and the civilian court last year. They last appeared in court in January 2020.

On Tuesday, a senior official from the World Uyghur Congress, said it was prepared to send an interpreter to Bangkok to assist in the case.

“We don’t know the procedure to send the translator. We learned that Thai authorities have asked the Chinese embassy in Bangkok for assistance,” Mehmet Tohti, a co-founder of the organization who is based in Ontario, Canada, told BenarNews by phone.

“If Thailand authorities are ready to accept, the Congress is ready to send the translator. We have experienced translators and we can assist,” Tohti said.

For the two Uyghur defendants to go without a proper trial for six years “tells us something,” Tohti said.

The proceedings would “likely be a political trial,” as he put it, because certain governments in Southeast Asia were “under heavy pressure from China.”

Tourists and locals pray during the first anniversary of the Erawan Shrine bombing, in central Bangkok, Aug. 17, 2016. Credit: Reuters
Tourists and locals pray during the first anniversary of the Erawan Shrine bombing, in central Bangkok, Aug. 17, 2016. Credit: Reuters
The bombing at the shrine was the deadliest terrorist attack in modern Thai history.

The shrine, whose centerpiece is a four-faced golden statue of the Hindu god Brahma, is venerated by Hindus as well as Buddhists, and is popular with foreign tourists. People from Buddhist-majority Thailand believe that the statue will bring them prosperity and good fortune, if they pray to it.

Thai authorities have said the bombing was “not transnational terrorism,” insisting that the “violent attack” was the work of smugglers, aggrieved that Thai authorities were hampering their human trafficking operations.

But most experts refute that theory, saying it was most likely retribution for the Thai government forcibly repatriating more than 100 asylum-seeking Uyghurs to China in July 2015.

The move drew criticism and protests from activists who say the Turkic-speaking Muslim minority suffers harsh repression in China, including police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on their culture and language.

Chalida Tajaroensuk, the director of People’s Empowerment Foundation, a Thai NGO, expressed concern that the defendants had to rely on an interpreter from China.

“To have a Chinese-picked translator is not fair. He or she may not be impartial because China is not an ally of the duo,” Tajaroensuk told BenarNews. “He or she may translate in favor of China.”

The Bangkok South criminal court did not immediately respond to BenarNews’s request for comments on the arrangement.

The charges

Karadag and Mieraili have been charged with criminal offenses, ranging from premeditated killing to possession of explosives. Both could face a death sentence if convicted.

Chalida said that while the issue about the translator was “bad luck” and “unavoidable,” she expressed concern about the length of the trial.

“They are still presumed innocent but have been kept in a special cell because of the serious nature of the case for way too long,” she said. “Even NGOs cannot visit except for the lawyer. It’s unjust.”

Chuchart, the attorney, said the two defendants were keeping up their morale.

“I visited them a couple of times during the Ramadan [in April],” said Chuchart, adding that they have started to speak some Thai.

Meanwhile, a senior police investigator who had handled the case early on admitted that the issue was a lack of interpreters.

“They wanted someone who they can trust, but that was hard. So the trial was postponed many times,” Col. Somkiat Ploytubtim, who is no longer assigned to the case, told BenarNews recently.

There have been four interpreters in the past.

One interpreter, an Uzbek, was later jailed for alleged possession of drugs in Bangkok. He claimed he had been framed for helping the two Uyghur men, and had been beaten by police. Three others did not work out because they did not have good command of Uyghur to be accurate for trial.

Ploytubtim said three people were arrested in the case.

Wanna Suansan, then 30, who married a Turkish man, was another suspect because she had rented out an apartment to the Uyghurs during that time.

She is facing a separate trial after returning home to Thailand in November 2017 and faces five criminal charges, including first-degree murder and possessing war weapons. She is out on bail.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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