Two foreign suspects arrested over carrying out a deadly bombing that killed 20 people in Bangkok last year denied all charges against them for involvement in the attack on Tuesday after they were brought to a military court for an highly anticipated trial marred by one of the suspects claiming he was tortured into confessing that he took part in the attack.
The two men, Bilal Mohammad (also known as Adem Karadag) and Yusufu Mieraili, are facing 10 charges, including conspiracy to explode bombs and commit premeditated murder.
"I am an innocent Muslim," Mieraili told the court.
Mieraili asked the court to accelerate proceedings, as he had already spent six months in jail.
and Mieraili heard the charges against them at a court in the Thai capital's historic quarters. They arrived shackled and handcuffed with shaved heads and wearing beige Thai prison uniforms.
Before the trial started, reporters were allowed inside the courtroom leaving their phones, notebooks and pens outside, and officials did not announce to those outside whether the trial had begun.
The suspects are expected to enter their pleas on Tuesday which will be followed by questioning and the formal trial.
Security officials identified the suspects as ethnic Uighurs from western China’s far eastern Xinjiang region. They said the Aug. 17 explosion that took place outside the Erawan Shrine was in retaliation for a crackdown on human smuggling gangs.
However, some analysts suspected that it might have been in retaliation for Thailand's forced repatriation of more than 100 Uighurs to China in July, where they may be persecuted.
The Erawan Shrine is popular among Chinese tourists and many were among the victims. Twenty people, including 14 foreign tourists were killed and 130 injured in the bombing, one of the deadliest acts of violence in Bangkok in decades.
Police are hunting for another 15 suspects in the case, but no progress has been announced.
An official told reporters before they were led inside the courtroom on Tuesday that authorities were trying to arrange for translators, one who would translate the proceedings in Thai to English, and another who would translate English to the Uighur language, which the defendants had asked for.
In November, the two suspects had first been charged by a military court, but neither had accepted or denied the charges because of interpretation issues at the hearing.
On Monday, Mohammad’s lawyer Schoochart Kanpai said that he retracted his earlier confession avowing he was tortured by security personnel into falsely confessing the attack.
Kanpai said on Tuesday that his client had never confessed.
"Defendant number one (Mohammad) is not going back on his word," Schoochart told reporters outside the court.
"He never confessed," he added.
The next court date is set for April 20-22, when both sides will review evidence, a judge said in court.
Mohammad was arrested on Aug. 29, after police raided his apartment. Initially he was alleged to be Turkish, but the allegation was later proven to be false, as the suspect was carrying a fake Turkish passport.
The other suspect, Mieraili, whose intentions for his court appearance were not known, was arrested on Sept. 1 near the Thai-Cambodia border. He was carrying a Chinese passport that showed he was from China’s Xinjiang region.
Thai police said that the case against the two suspects is supported by closed-circuit television footage, witnesses, DNA matching and physical evidence, in addition to their confessions.
Police believe that Mieraili planted the bomb minutes after a backpack containing the explosive device was left at the shrine by a yellow-shirted man they suspect was Mohammad.
Military courts in Thailand have handled criminal cases deemed to involve national security since a May 2014 coup.