Thai military court rejects torture allegation in bomb trial

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BANGKOK (AP) — A Thai military court on Tuesday rejected allegations by two Uighur defendants that they were tortured in custody to confess to bombing a popular Hindu shrine in Bangkok last year that left 20 people dead. The court then postponed the rest of the hearing to next month because no Uighur-language translator was available.

In previous preliminary hearings, the two men who are from the Uighur-speaking region of China have said they were tortured and mistreated by their jailors in military detention, and on Tuesday pleaded to be moved to a different correctional facility.

"After investigating these claims, the court finds them to be false and the defendants will remain where they are since this is a case of national security," one of the three judges on the panel ruled.

The judges, who have not been identified in keeping with protocol in military trials, said the defendants' safety may be at risk in a regular correctional facility because of the high-profile nature of the case, and that they were safer in military detention.

The ruling came on what was to be the first day of the trial of the two ethnic Uighurs of Chinese nationality. But the opening day, which was set aside for recording witness testimonies, got off to a shaky start when the court realized that there was no Uighur-language translator available.

The makeshift translator in previous hearings was also a Uighur, who was arrested in a separate criminal case. Defense lawyers said he had apparently skipped bail and disappeared.

The hearings scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday were then postponed to Sept. 15-16 while authorities try to bring a new translator.

The two defendants — Mieraili Yusufu and Bilal Mohammad, also known as Adem Karadag — have pleaded not guilty. At a recent pre-trial appearance they broke down in tears alleging mistreatment and torture by Thai authorities.

They are the only two men in custody out of the 17 people that authorities say were responsible for the Aug. 17, 2015, bombing of the Erawan shrine in Bangkok's most famous shopping district of Ratchaprasong. It was one of the deadliest acts of violence in Thailand in decades.

The Erawan shrine, dedicated to Hindu god Brahma, is popular among Chinese and other tourists. Of the dead, 14 were tourists. Many Chinese were among the 120 people injured.

Thai authorities have said the bombing 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 scores of Uighurs to China, where they may be persecuted.

Chuchart Kanpai, the lawyer for one of the defendants, has told reporters in the past that Bilal had been tortured to admit that he was the person seen in surveillance video planting the bomb. Bilal says his captors poured cold water into his nose, threatened to send him back to China and had a barking dog frighten him.

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.

Since a May 2014 coup installed the military in power, its courts in Thailand have handed criminal cases deemed to involve national security.

The two men have been held at an army base since their arrest in late August and early September 2015. No other details of their interrogation have been revealed. Some of the 15 other suspects are Turks, with whom Uighurs share ethnic bonds, and Turkey is home to a large Uighur community. Beijing charges that some Uighurs are Islamist terrorists and that some have been smuggled out of China to join Islamic State fighters in Syria via Turkey.

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