Troubling questions about Bangkok blast probe

BANGKOK • Armed soldiers and policemen blocked the streets of Bangkok last Saturday as Thai police marched two foreign suspects through an elaborate re-enactment of the capital's deadliest bomb attack in recent years.

On Monday, retiring police chief Somyot Pumpanmuang all but called investigations a wrap, awarding his men some 3 million baht (S$118,000) in donated cash before journalists at a press conference.

Then, he threw a curveball: The Erawan shrine bombing on Aug 17 and a blast the next day by the Chao Phraya river were not just revenge attacks by human smugglers thwarted by a government crackdown.

"It might have been a contract crime. A group might have hired another already bent on taking revenge to commit the crime so both got what they wanted," he said, his remarks drawing attention to one of the Thai suspects who is allegedly from the "red shirt" movement linked to exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. This posited link to the "red shirts", now closely monitored and suppressed by the military government, has drawn a mixture of ridicule and anger. Red shirt leaders have denied knowing the suspect Yongyut Pobkaew, who is at large.

It also risks politicising an investigation which - albeit fumbling from the start - appeared to make significant ground after the arrest of a key suspect now largely believed to be an ethnic Uighur.

Soldiers securing the area around the Erawan shrine before the arrival of the foreign suspects, who went through an elaborate re-enactment of the capital's deadliest bomb attack in recent years. - PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Incoming national police chief Chaktip Chaijinda inherits a case that remains riddled with questions.

While the key suspect, Adem Karadag, has confessed to planting the rush-hour bomb that killed 20 people and injured over 100, he reportedly acted on the instructions of a man called Abdullah Abdulrahman, who remains at large.

In fact, out of the 17 people targeted with arrest warrants issued by a military court last Friday, 15 are still on the run.

Some of the suspects are Thais and others identified as Turkish, and many are thought to have fled abroad.

The Thai authorities have strenuously denied the bombing was a terrorist attack, in an apparent bid to protect its tourism industry that continues to bring in much-needed revenue to an otherwise stuttering economy. But given that 15 other suspects remain at large - the continual denial of the terrorist element has practical implications, possibly slowing international aid on the case.

Under the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings of 1997, of which Thailand is a state party, detonating an explosive or other lethal devices in a public place with the intent to cause death, serious injuries or destruction is considered a terrorist act.

Mr Hernan Longo, the Bangkok-based programme officer for counter-terrorism at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, tells The Straits Times:  "For the application of this international legal instrument against terrorism, the motivations behind the attack, the ideology of the perpetrators, or the group or network they belong to, are irrelevant."

The acknowledgement of terrorism may, in fact, expedite assistance from other countries in collecting evidence, activating international legal mechanisms that allow for "the freezing without delay of terrorist assets or (setting) up the grounds for establishing jurisdiction over the crimes, in those cases where more than one state have a direct interest in the investigation, for example, because of the nationality of the victims or the perpetrators", he says.

"It also guarantees that cooperation would not be refused based on potential allegations on the 'political nature' of the act, as terrorist crimes cannot be considered of a political nature."

Meanwhile, there are other unsettling aspects of the investigation. The two detained foreigners - Karadag and Yusufu Mieraili - were and are still held in a military facility rather than a prison in Bangkok.

It was under these conditions and while without access to his lawyer that Karadag confessed to planting the bomb in Erawan shrine.

As a precursor to a military tribunal, suspects with existing arrest warrants issued by civilian courts were slapped with new arrest warrants last Friday issued by a military court.

The prospect that this high-profile case would eventually be heard in a military court is troubling, given that proceedings are widely expected to be less transparent than in civilian courts.

Mr Sam Zarifi, the regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, says: "Military tribunals around the world and in Thailand don't have the capacity to handle complicated cases like this."

If the trial goes to a military court, "the case would really lose a great deal of legitimacy in the international community and also inside Thailand".

Fourteen foreigners, including seven Chinese, five Malaysians and one Singaporean, were killed in the attack. The world will be watching closely.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2015, with the headline 'Troubling questions about Bangkok blast probe'. Subscribe