BANGKOK – Thailand’s military court on Tuesday indicted two foreigners accused of carrying out a deadly bombing at a shrine in Bangkok but questions hang over the case because of the attackers’ unclear motive and an opaque investigation.
Both men have been described by officials as ethnic Uighurs (pronounced “wee-ghurs”) from western China’s Xinjiang region. Officials say the blast was carried out by a people-smuggling gang seeking revenge on Thai authorities for cracking down on their operation.
The attack shocked the residents of the capital because of the apparent randomness, which drove home the point that no place is immune to acts of terror. Authorities, however, have declined to call it an act of terrorism out of apparent fear that it would hurt the country’s huge tourism industry.
Police initially appeared at first to be at a loss, but soon claimed success with a series of raids and two arrests. Arrest warrants have been issued for 15 others.
The two suspects were brought to the court in handcuffs wearing brown prison garb. Members of the media were not allowed to enter the court and the indictments took place before the two suspects arrived, said defense lawyer Chuchart Kanpai.
The two, identified as Bilal Mohammad and Mieraili Yusufu, were indicted on 10 counts — none of them terrorism charges. They include conspiracy to explode bombs and commit premeditated murder, Chuchart said.
Early speculation about the bombing had suggested it might be the work of Uighur separatists who were angry that Thailand in July forcibly repatriated more than 100 Uighurs to China, where it is feared they face persecution. The theory was bolstered by the fact that the Erawan Shrine is popular among Chinese tourists, who figured prominently among the victims of the bombing.
But Thai officials reject any political or religious motive, sticking to the theory that it was a revenge for disrupting a human-smuggling gang. Still, skepticism about the police explanation on the shrine attack has abounded because of leaks, contradictions, misstatements and secrecy surrounding the investigation.
The two men have been held at an army base since their arrests in late August and early September. No details of their interrogation have been revealed. Even their nationalities remain unclear.
They are being tried at a military court on an army base in Bangkok because cases of “national security” have been handled by the military since last May, when the army seized power in a coup from an elected government.
Former National Police Chief Somyot Poomphanmuang said before his retirement in September that the case against the two suspects was supported by closed-circuit television footage, witnesses, DNA matching and physical evidence, in addition to their confessions.
Security camera footage from the Erawan Shrine showed a man wearing a yellow T-shirt who sat down on a bench at the outdoor shrine, took off a black backpack and then left it behind as he stood up and walked away. Time stamps on closed circuit TV footage showed he left the shrine just minutes before the blast occurred, during evening rush hour as the area in central Bangkok was filled with people.
Police believe that Bilal is the yellow-shirted man who planted the bomb and Yusufu is believed to have detonated the bomb.
Bilal, was initially identified as Adem Karadag, which was the name on a fake Turkish passport in his possession when he was arrested Aug. 29. He was arrested at one of two apartments police raided on the outskirts of Bangkok.
Yusufu was arrested Sept. 1 near the Thai-Cambodia border, carrying a Chinese passport indicating he was from Xinjiang. Police said his DNA and fingerprints were found in both raided apartments, including on a container of gunpowder.
Police said they have confessions from the two, and Bilal’s lawyer says his client admitted planting the deadly bomb at the behest of another suspect who remains a fugitive. He says Bilal was induced to carry out the action by a promise that his emigration to Turkey would be expedited.
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.