Police in Thailand on Monday expressed confidence they have in custody the man responsible for planting the bomb that killed 20 people, including Chinese and other tourists, at a popular Bangkok shrine.
Since soon after the bombing, officials have released at times vague and contradictory statements about the suspects involved in the attack and their motivations, leading to skepticism about the integrity of the investigation. But they say they now have identified the bomber as well as the network that helped him perpetrate the capital’s worst mass casualty attack.
Bilal Mohammed (also identified as Mohammad Bilaturk), who was carrying a forged Turkish passport in the name of Adem Karadag, 28, is alleged to have placed the bomb on August 17 at the Erawan Shrine.
The suspect, clad in a yellow T-shirt similar to the one seen being worn by the apparent bomber on CCTV video, was forced to publicly re-enact the bombing at the shrine on Saturday — a common Thai investigative practice.
A second suspect in custody, Yusufu Mierili, a 25-tear-old native of Xinjiang, China, is alleged to have handed the bomb to Bilal and to have taken photographs of the resulting blast.
Both men have confessed their involvement in the bombings, police said.
Blast not terrorism?
Officials have implicated a total of 17 people in the fatal attack on the Hindu religious site and a second bombing at Sathorn pier on the following day which injured no one.
Investigators earlier said the masterminds of the crime fled Thailand and they continue to reject any characterization that the attack was an act of terrorism.
“This case is conclusive,” said Royal Thai Police commissioner-general Somyot Poompanmoung. “The perpetrators are part of a human smuggling network” in retribution for the Thai government’s crackdown on a human trafficking network.
However, Somyot and other top officials clarified the group was likely hired by others and links to vested political interests could not be ruled out. Authorities have given few clues about other political motivations for the attack, however outside analysts have suggested it could be linked to the country’s internal political divisions.
Detonators, ball bearings and other evidence recovered from the debris around the shrine and an alleged second bombing attack at a pier match materials found in two raided apartments, police told reporters at a Monday briefing.
The two suspects in custody are to be tried in military court as there is now sufficient evidence to prosecute them following confessions which were not forced, Somyot told reporters.
Public confidence in the investigation has been undermined by contradictory information issued by authorities and suspicions about transparency in a country under military control and a notoriously corrupt police force.
“It's crucial that the suspects receive adequate legal defense and full protection of due process to ensure that the right people are being prosecuted — and convicted — in compliance with Thai and international fair trial standards,” said
Sam Zarifi, Asia regional director for the International Commission of Jurists.
“The investigation has not been up to the standards expected for a case of such sensitivity,“ Zarifi told VOA following the Monday police briefing. “Numerous conflicting and confusing statements about the suspects and engagement with other countries' police forces have needlessly eroded credibility when what is demanded is truth and justice for the victims and survivors.”
Thai officials previously acknowledged that they had been ordered not to characterize the bombing as a terrorist attack so as not to harm Thailand's important tourism industry and in view of the closer relationship with China since last year's coup in the kingdom. But Thai media have openly drawn a possible link between the bombing – which killed 20 people -- and Thailand's deportation in July of more than 100 ethnic Uighurs.
Following their forcible return to China, violent protests in Istanbul targeted the Thai and Chinese missions.
Turkey's diplomatic mission in Bangkok has twice publicly expressed skepticism about reported links to its nationals and frustration with a lack of satisfactory communication with Thai officials.
Monday's announcement comes just days before police chief Somyot is to retire. He had previously told reporters that the man seen on CCTV cameras at the shrine had fled over the Malaysian border with the help of smugglers.
Karadag’s lawyer, Choochart Khanphai said his client was not in the Thai capital when the shrine bombing occurred, only arriving four days later. The attorney said he has not been able to question the suspect, a native of China’s Xinjiang province, since his apparent confession.
More than 200 people have been interviewed about the pair of bombings, including 30 witnesses, police said.