Case lost in translation

foreign suspect in the August 17 Erawan shrine bombing, identified by the ruling junta as Yusufu Mieraili (3rd R), listens to an interpreter as he is questioned by police officers at Bangkok’s Metropolitan Police Station yesterday. Mieraili, one of the two men arrested over last month’s deadly Bangkok bomb has admitted to a charge of possessing explosives, Thai police said yesterday, in the first confession over the deadly attack. —AFP

27 Oct 2016 at 04:40

At a glance, the postponement of a court trial for two suspects in connection with the deadly bombing at the Erawan shrine due to the lack of an interpreter sparks suspicion there may be foul play in the case which has been long delayed.

The two suspects, Yusufu Mieraili, 27, and Adem Karadag, 31, also known as Bilal Mohammed or Bilal Turk, are believed to come from the western region of Xinjiang in China and are implicated in the bombing on Aug 17 last year which killed 20 people, mostly Chinese tourists, and injured 130 others. They were taken to the Bangkok Military Court on Tuesday only to be told that officials had failed to find a Uighur-to-Thai interpreter for them.

This was the second time the trial was postponed for this reason. The first, which was scheduled last month, was put off as the two defendants complained that they could not understand their court-appointed interpreter, a woman who spoke Uzbek.

Mr Karadag was arrested on Aug 29 last year -- 12 days after the deadly attack -- while staying at an apartment in Nong Chok district on the outskirts of Bangkok. Mr Mieraili, meanwhile, was nabbed on Sept 1 as he was trying to cross the border into Cambodia at Ban Pa Rai in Aranyaprathet district in Sa Kaeo province. They have been detained at a military court.

The fact that the Aug 17 blast took place just a month after the Thai government deported more than 100 Uighurs back to China at the request of Beijing prompted most analysts to believe that the attack was retaliation for the deportation which was condemned by rights groups.

However, Thai authorities have maintained the blast was not political and had nothing to do with terrorism. They obviously said this out of fear the deadly incident might have a negative impact on the country's tourism industry.

Instead, they put the blame for the explosion on a passport forgery gang whose members were angry at a police crackdown on their operations.

Both defendants pleaded not guilty to bomb charges. Mr Karadag had complained to the Thai media he had been beaten during his interrogation. The government tersely dismissed his allegations without any attempt to investigate his claims. It should be noted that the trial by the military court has upset rights advocacy groups which have demanded the case be transferred to a civilian court.

But the language barrier, indeed, emerges as a major problem for this case. There were reports the court scrapped the idea that the defendants were to have an interpreter from the World Uighur Congress, a Munich-based group that seeks self-determination for the Xinjiang region.

Instead, the court reportedly instructed Thai authorities to approach the Chinese embassy to request a Uighur-to-English, or Mandarin-to-Thai translator, on the basis that both Mr Karadag and Mr Mieraili hold Chinese passports. The next trial is rescheduled for next month.

Many believe the Chinese embassy, if asked by the Thai authorities, may render assistance regarding translation.

But the government must think carefully if it is to give China a role in the trial. Having Chinese representation will complicate the case further taking into consideration existing ethnic conflicts between Beijing and the ethnic Muslim minority.

What is needed now are assurances that the trial is fair and transparent. The best option available for the government is to seek help from international organisations that can better ensure impartiality.

As suspects, the two defendants deserve a fair trial, with transparent court proceedings that can prevent any party from politicising the case.