February 16, 2016 / 7:39 AM / 2 years ago

Chinese Uighur suspects deny Bangkok bomb charges in court

Suspect of last year's Bangkok blast Bilal Mohammed (also known as Adem Karadag) is escorted by prison officers as he arrives at the military court in Bangkok, Thailand, February 16, 2016.Chaiwat Subprasom

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Two Chinese ethnic Uighur men on Tuesday appeared at a Thai military court and denied all charges against them for involvement in a bombing that killed 20 people in Bangkok last year.

Most of those killed in the Aug. 17 explosion at the Erawan shrine near a busy Bangkok intersection were foreigners. More than 120 were wounded by the blast at the shrine, a popular attraction for both tourists and Thais alike.

"I am an innocent Muslim," Yusufu Mieraili, one of the two suspects, told the court. Mieraili asked the court to accelerate proceedings, as he had already spent six months in jail.

Mieraili and Adem Karadag, also known as Bilal Mohammed, 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.

They faced ten charges, including murder, premeditated murder and illegal possession of explosives.

Police said both men had confessed to having a role in the Aug. 17 explosion.

Karadag's lawyer Schoochart Kanpai said on Tuesday that his client had never confessed.

"Defendant number one (Karadag) is not going back on his word," Schoochart told reporters outside the court. "He never confessed."

Schoochart said he had asked the court to look into his client's allegations that he was tortured in custody.

The junta has said it was unlikely the two suspects were tortured while in military custody.

The next stage in the case will take place on April 20-22, when both sides will review evidence, a judge said in court.

No group claimed responsibility for the August attack, which Thai authorities have said was in retaliation for a crackdown on human smuggling gangs and not a terrorist attack.

But some security experts say the bomb was in retaliation for Thailand's forced repatriation of more than 100 Uighurs to China in July rather than in response to a crackdown on human smuggling gangs.

China has long faced criticism for the restrictions it places on religion and culture in Xinjiang, where the majority of Uighurs live.

Police said in December that two other suspects wanted in connection with the bomb had been arrested abroad and that Thailand was in the process of requesting their extradition.

Since then, there has been no progress in bringing the two suspects to Thailand and Thai police said this week they were unsure of the suspects' whereabouts.

Police have issued warrants for 17 people in connection with the attack. Fifteen of those wanted are still at large.

Additional reporting by Aukkarapon Niyomat; Editing by Simon Webb and Simon Cameron-Moore

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