The trial of two Uyghur men accused of carrying out a deadly bombing last year at a Hindu shrine in Bangkok opened on Tuesday after months of delays caused by wrangling over a courtroom interpreter.
Adem Karadag (also known as Bilal Mohammed) and Yusufu Mierali went on trial at a military court in Bangkok after judges accepted a pair of interpreters provided by the Chinese embassy, according to a lawyer for the defendants.
Karadeg and Mierali were arrested within a few weeks of the bombing at the Erawan Shrine, a popular tourist destination in Bangkok, that left 20 people dead and 125 injured on Aug. 17, 2015. The two defendants, who identified themselves as Uyghurs from Urumqi in the Xinjiang region of China when they pleaded not guilty to the charges nine months ago, could face the death penalty if convicted.
“My clients were not happy about the translators provided by Chinese embassy, but, to me, it is acceptable for making the trial [go ahead]. It is a minor issue,” defense lawyer Chuchart Kanpai told BenarNews.
“The translator can communicate well in Uyghur but the defendants felt uneasy. The court took note of the complaint of their discomfort,” he said.
Many injured, many dead: Witness
Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority within China, who mostly live in the Xinjiang region 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, who consider them to be separatists and terrorists.
The bombing happened weeks after Thai authorities forcibly sent nearly 100 Uyghurs to China. However, soon after the attack, Thailand’s prime minister rejected media reports speculating about this.
Thai officials have since said that Karadeg and Mierali were part of a human trafficking ring that carried out the attack in retaliation for a crackdown by Thailand against people-smuggling networks last year. Thai authorities have issued 17 arrest warrants for Thai and foreign suspects wanted in the case, but the two Uyghurs are the only ones who have been arrested and charged in Thailand.
A pipe bomb, packed with three kilos of TNT, went off after being planted inside the shrine near a busy intersection in Bangkok. Footage from a security camera caught a man leaving a backpack on a bench inside the shrine moments before the explosion. Police later identified the man as Adem Karadag.
Karadag, then 31, was arrested on Aug. 29, 2015, after police said they had found bomb-making materials at an apartment in Bangkok’s suburban Nongjok district. He was charged with offenses ranging from premeditated killing and bomb possession to illegal entry into Thailand.
Mieraili, then 28, was arrested on Sept. 1, 2015, while trying to flee to neighboring Cambodia, police allege. Investigators claim that he was attempting to acquire bomb-making materials.
The start of their trial was twice delayed – in August and September – over problems with providing a courtroom interpreter who could translate between Uyghur and English.
The trial was postponed because an interpreter from Uzbekistan who had been appointed to the case was charged in a drug case by Thai authorities. Later, Thailand’s attorney-general rejected an attempt by the defense team to get an interpreter provided by the World Uyghur Congress, a Uyghur exile group based in Germany, citing national security reasons.
On Tuesday, after the issue of the courtroom interpreter was settled, only one witness took the stand on the trial’s opening day.
Police Col. Somkiat Ploytubtim, an officer who investigated the bomb site, testified for the prosecution.
“I saw many people injured and many dead. The shrine was damaged,” Somkiat testified.
The trial is scheduled to resume on Wednesday. According to Agence France-Presse, it is expected to go on until early 2018 “with the court only sitting for a few days each month.”