Two members of China's Muslim Uighur minority pleaded innocent Tuesday to carrying out the deadly bombing of a Bangkok landmark last year, with the lawyer of one 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.
The suspects made their first appearance at a military court in the case since November, when they were read the charges against them.
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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. At their November court appearance, the defendants had refused to take a plea because there was no Uighur translator available.
Both men told the court Tuesday that they were Chinese citizens but members 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 in central Bangkok 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 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 Uighur-speaking 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."
Yusufu did not have his own lawyer, so the court appointed a military attorney to represent him Tuesday. He said he wanted to find his own civilian lawyer, whose fees he would pay himself.
Bilal was arrested Aug. 29 at a Bangkok apartment, while Yusufu was arrested Sept. 1 near the Thai-Cambodia border.
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 a yellow-shirted man they suspect was Bilal.
The court announced Tuesday that it had set April 20-22 for hearings to examine the evidence in the case.
Military courts in Thailand have handled criminal cases deemed to involve national security since a May 2014 coup.