Two suspects in the Bangkok blast that killed 20 people last August have denied they were involved in the attack.
In a small military court packed with reporters and military officers, the ethnic Uighur men from China's Xinjiang region - Mieraili Yusufu, 26, and Bilal Mohammed, 31 - pleaded not guilty yesterday to a string of charges that included premeditated murder and illegal possession of explosives.
Mieraili is accused of delivering the bomb, while Bilal is suspected of placing a backpack containing the bomb at Erawan Shrine. Police say the pair initially admitted their roles in the rush-hour blast, which left more than 120 others injured. Most of the victims were foreigners. One of the dead was a Singaporean.
Thailand's military government, which is banking on tourism to help lift the kingdom's economic fortunes, has insisted that the blast was not an act of terrorism but rather the work of a people-smuggling ring angry over a government crackdown. Bilal and Mieraili were nabbed separately six months ago.
At the hearing yesterday, a visibly frustrated Mieraili - who was represented by a military lawyer as he was unable to find a civilian one - asked the court to expedite proceedings.
"I am not guilty but I have been sitting in jail for six months," he said through an interpreter. He said he planned to find a civilian lawyer at his own expense.
Meanwhile, Bilal maintained that he entered Thailand on Aug 21 - four days after the blast. He admitted to the charges of entering and staying in the kingdom illegally.
The driver refused to disclose his address in Xinjiang, saying that he was afraid of reprisals from the Chinese government.
The Muslim Uighur minority in China allege they are persecuted by Beijing. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the blast, some believe the bomb was planted in retaliation for Thailand's forcible repatriation of 109 Uighurs last July, which human rights groups feared would put them in harm's way.
In separate comments released through his lawyer, Bilal - also known as Adem Karadag - claimed that security officers threatened to hand him over to the Chinese government if he did not confess to his role in the bombing.
"They did not allow me to wear any clothing and they blindfolded me," he said in the statement. "An official brought the dog very close to me and let the dog bark and growl at me the whole time."
His lawyer Schoochart Kanpai told reporters a complaint about the alleged torture has been filed.
National police chief Chakthip Chaijinda said it was the "defendants' right" to retract their earlier confessions but denied that they had been obtained under duress, according to AFP.
Both sides are set to review the evidence from April 20 to 22.
Out of the 17 arrest warrants issued over the case, 15 people remain at large.