Burmese men face death over UK tourist murders in Thailand
Controversy dogged trial of migrant workers for killing Hannah Witheridge and David Miller
Two burmese migrant workers have been sentenced to death in Thailand after being found guilty of killing two British tourists on Koh Tao resort island in September 2014. Photograph: Rungroj Yongrit/EPA.
A Thai court sentenced two Burmese migrant workers to death on Thursday after convicting them of the 2014 murders of two young British tourists on a holiday island in a case mired in controversy and a dispute over DNA testing.
The battered bodies of backpackers Hannah Witheridge and David Miller were found on a beach on the island of Koh Tao in September 2014. Police said Ms Witheridge (23) had been raped and bludgeoned to death and Mr Miller (24) suffered blows to his head.
Following pressure to solve the case, police arrested Burmese migrant workers Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun and said the two had confessed to the crimes. Both later retracted their confessions, saying they had been made under duress.
The brutality of the murders dented Thailand’s image as a happy-go-lucky holiday paradise and raised serious questions about its treatment of migrant workers.
The verdicts on Samui island, close to Koh Tao, follow an investigation that triggered allegations of police incompetence, mishandling of evidence and DNA tests and torture of the suspects.
Thursday’s ruling caused outrage in Burma, also known as Myanmar, and dozens of police were deployed to guard the Thai embassy in Rangoon amid calls on social media for a protest. About 10 people stood outside the building holding placards demanding their release.
As is customary in Thailand, where trials have no jury, a judge delivered the ruling and said DNA tests were carried out to acceptable standards and samples found on Ms Witheridge’s body matched the defendants. The judge also said the claim of police torture carried no weight.
The debate over DNA samples that police say linked the two suspects to Ms Witheridge was core to the trial.
Defence lawyers had asked to retest DNA samples but authorities issued conflicting statements on that evidence and, at one point, said DNA had been used up. No independent re-testing was done.
Mr Miller’s family attended the verdict and his brother Michael delivered a statement to reporters saying justice had been served, adding the two men had shown no remorse.
“We believe what happened today represents justice for Hannah and David,” he said. “The Royal Thai Police conducted a thorough and methodical investigation ... evidence against the two was overwhelming.”
Ms Witheridge’s family said the trial had been distressing.
“We found listening to proceedings very challenging and we have had to endure a lot of painful and confusing information,” the family said in a statement.
“We now need time, as a family, to digest the outcome of the trial and figure out the most appropriate way to tell our story.”
The mother of one of the defendants broke down in tears as the judge passed sentence. Defence lawyer Nakhon Chompuchat said an appeal would be filed within a month.
Police were widely accused of bungling the investigation, including failing to close off the island quickly and allowing potential suspects to escape.