Thai police can't find 15 linked to shrine blast

Mieraili (left) and Karadag (centre) under police escort at a military court in Bangkok yesterday. Both are Uighur Muslims. Police have issued arrest warrants for 15 other people in connection with the Aug 17 blast.
Mieraili (left) and Karadag (centre) under police escort at a military court in Bangkok yesterday. Both are Uighur Muslims. Police have issued arrest warrants for 15 other people in connection with the Aug 17 blast.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BANGKOK • Thai police cannot find 15 suspects in connection with a bomb at a shrine in Bangkok last year that killed 20 people, an officer said yesterday, as two ethnic Uighur Muslims from China accused of involvement appeared in a military court.

No group claimed responsibility for the Aug 17 blast at the Erawan Shrine, a central tourist spot popular with visitors from China and elsewhere in Asia. Five of the dead were from China and two from Hong Kong. More than 120 people were wounded.

Analysts, diplomats and even officials suspected the attack was linked to Uighur sympathisers angered by Thailand's deportation of more than 100 Uighurs to China the previous month. But police ruled out "terrorism" and said the attack was retaliation for a crackdown on human-smuggling.

The two suspects who were arrested - Yusufu Mieraili and Adem Karadag - are Uighur Muslims, a minority from western China. They have denied all charges.

Police have issued arrest warrants for 15 other people, eight of whom are thought to be either Turkish or in Turkey, according to the warrants and police statements.

"We don't know where they are," said deputy police spokesman Songpol Wattanachai. "The perpetrators have done their utmost to escape."

Shaven-headed and barefoot, Mieraili and Karadag - who is also known as Bilal Mohammed - were led in handcuffs and leg shackles into a cramped court in Bangkok.

Mieraili spoke briefly to the media, saying he expected the trial to take "a very long time".

The men had marks on their foreheads which he said came from contact with the floor during prayer.

Three judges heard evidence laid out in 25 thick files on a table beneath them. There was no jury.

The defendants' lawyers said more than 500 witnesses could be called for the prosecution and defence, and that the high-profile trial could last a year or more.

Police say Karadag was the man caught on CCTV footage at the shrine, sitting on a bench, slipping off a bulky backpack and walking away just before the blast.

Most Uighurs live in China's violence-plagued Xinjiang region, where exiles and human rights groups say Uighurs chafe against government policies that restrict their culture and religion.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2016, with the headline 'Thai police can't find 15 linked to shrine blast'. Print Edition | Subscribe