BANGKOK (AP) — Two Uighur Muslims from China pleaded innocent Tuesday to carrying out the deadly bombing of a Bangkok landmark last year, with one man's lawyer saying his client claims to have been tortured to elicit a confession.
The two men — Bilal Mohammad, 31, and Mieraili Yusufu, 27 — face eight charges related to the bombing, including conspiracy to explode bombs and commit premeditated murder. Twenty people, including 14 foreign tourists, were killed and more than 120 injured in the August attack, one of the deadliest acts of violence in Bangkok in decades.
Bilal, also known as Adem Karadag — the name on a fake Turkish passport he was carrying when he was arrested — faces two additional charges of violating immigration law by entering Thailand illegally. The defendants had refused to take a plea at an earlier count appearance because there was no Uighur (pronounced WEE-gur) translator available.
Both men told the court Tuesday they were Chinese citizens of the Uighur minority, from the city of Urumqi in western China's Xinjiang region.
Thai authorities have said the bombing of the popular 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 angry that Thailand in July had forcibly repatriated more than 100 Uighurs to China, where they may be persecuted. The Erawan Shrine is especially popular among Chinese tourists, and many were among the victims of the bombing.
"I couldn't say what my exact address in China is because I'm afraid of the Chinese government," Bilal told the court through a translator from Uzbekistan.
Police are hunting for another 15 suspects in the case, but no progress has been announced.
Bilal's lawyer, Chuchart Kanpai, told reporters after the court session that his client said he had been tortured in late September, about three weeks after his arrest, to pressure him to admit that he was the person seen in surveillance video planting the bomb.
Bilal claimed his captors poured cold water into his nose, threatened to send him back to China and had a barking dog frighten him. Chuchart said he filed a complaint with the court last month over the torture allegations.
"He was tortured by officials. He didn't know if they were soldiers or police because they were non-uniformed," Chuchart told The Associated Press on Monday. "Back then, he confessed so that he wouldn't be tortured again. He was just saying it."
The court on Tuesday appointed a military attorney to represent Yusufu, who said he wanted to find his own civilian lawyer, whose fees he would pay himself.
Police say the case against the two men 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 Bilal.
The court set further hearings in the case to begin April 20.
Military courts in Thailand have handled criminal cases deemed to involve national security since a May 2014 coup.