BANGKOK — As the trial began Tuesday against two Uighur men accused of bombing a Bangkok shrine in the worst single terror attack in modern Thai history, the court-approved interpreter did not know the word “shrine.”
Abdulwali Aiyai stumbled on that and other words as he attempted to translate testimony inside the military courtroom where Yusufu Mieraili and Adem Karadag stand accused of bombing the Erawan Shrine, one of the capital’s most-trafficked religious sites, and killing 20 people.
One of his colleagues, who translated Thai to English, had to whisper explanations of what a shrine is.
“It’s like a statue!” a defense lawyer chimed in helpfully.
Over the course of the two-hour session at the military tribunal, it emerged that Aiyai was also not familiar with words such as “wig,” “grey,” “arrest warrants,” or “police jurisdiction,” but his translation skills aren’t what concern the defense team.
It is his background as a reporter for Chinese state media that worries the lawyers that their clients, two members of an ethnic group persecuted by the Chinese authorities, would not receive a fair and impartial translation. Aiyai and another Uighur interpreter were employed for the trial by the Chinese embassy, whose prior objections led the court to reject other interpreters.
“Perhaps it’s his first day on the job, and he will be smoother next time,” defense attorney Schoochart Kanpai said after the court recessed.
Schoochart earlier filed a formal protest seeking the interpreter be removed on grounds of a conflict of interest.
Finding an interpreter for the case all sides agree to be qualified and impartial has been a point of prolonged contention. It’s been more than a year since the two Uighur men were arrested for the bombing, but their trial was repeatedly delayed because of hurdles providing translation.
A previous interpreter was disqualified after police arrested him on drug charges. Another interpreter, an Uzbek national in custody for immigration violations, was rejected after defendants learned she couldn’t actually speak Uighur. An interpreter requested by the defense team was turned down by the court because he belonged to a Germany-based advocacy group China said it deemed a terror organization.
Today the military judges settled with two interpreters sent by the Chinese embassy in Bangkok: Aiyai and his colleague, Truzun Niyasbilag. Shoochart, the defense attorney, said he only learned about it Tuesday morning before the trial got underway.
He immediately protested the decision, both verbally and in writing, arguing that two reporters from an Uighur-language news station in Beijing may have a conflict of interest with his clients.
“The defendants ask the court to arrange a new interpreter because China is unfair in its governance [of the Uighurs],” part of the formal protest read.
The Uighurs are a Muslim-majority ethnic group in the far-flung western province of Xinjiang, where conflict has simmered with the arrivals of ethnic Han Chinese to settle the area. Weeks before the shrine bombing, Thailand forcibly deported more than 100 Uighurs under pressure from Beijing, who then paraded them in hoods as “terrorists.”
Many analysts ascribe the attack as revenge; Thai authorities insist it was perpetrated by a criminal trafficking syndicate displeased with its crackdown on their operations.
On Tuesday the military judges rejected the defense motion on the grounds the two interpreters were of the same nationality as the defendants and could communicate well with them in Uighur. Furthermore, the judges said the pair had yet to show any “dishonest intentions” in their work.
So the first session in the trial of Erawan Shrine bombing commenced.
The first witness to take the stand was a former police investigator named Somkiat Ploytubtim. His testimony was first translated by a Thai interpreter into English which Aiyai then translated to Uighur. His colleague Niyasbilag watched silently.
Defendent Yusufu, who has a passable understanding of English, sometimes objected when he believed the translation did not match.
Once, Aiyai mistranslated “armband” as “long shirt sleeve,” and another time said one mobile phone was found inside Karadag’s residence whereas Somkiat said three.
“You translate wrong,” Yusufu said to Aiyai in English. “Some words you said different. I’m worried you will translate wrong.”
One of the three judges dismissed the complaint, saying that court documents only recorded the Thai testimony by Somkiat and not the erroneous translation.
The defense team expects the trial to conclude by early 2018.