Thai court hands Myanmar men death penalty for British tourist murders
Two Myanmar migrants were sentenced to death Thursday for murdering a pair of British holidaymakers on a Thai island, in a case that sullied the kingdom's reputation as a tourist haven and raised questions over its justice system.
Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun were found guilty of killing David Miller, 24, and the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, whose battered bodies were found on a beach on the southern diving resort of Koh Tao in September last year.
"Both defendants are guilty of murder for which the penalty is the death sentence," an unnamed judge told the court on neighbouring Koh Samui.
The pair were also found guilty of raping Witheridge and conspiracy to hide the crime in a ruling that was welcomed by Miller's family who travelled to Thailand for the verdict.
The ruling was guided by "eyewitnesses and DNA evidence from both suspects," the judge explained, citing forensic traces from the accused found on Witheridge's body.
The migrant workers, who were shackled in court, were grim-faced as the verdict was delivered, while the mother of one of them wailed from the gallery.
Both men denied killing the British pair.
They were arrested on October 2 after a high-profile police probe which saw authorities come under intense pressure to solve a case that shocked the Thai public.
Throughout the trial prosecutors said their evidence against the men was rock solid.
But the defence has accused the police of bungling their investigation and using the migrant men -- both aged 22 -- as scapegoats.
Investigators were accused of failing to properly collect and preserve DNA samples and declining to test key pieces of evidence, such as Witheridge's clothes.
The defence has vowed to appeal the verdict.
-- 'Justice delivered' --
Miller was struck by a single blow and left to drown in shallow surf while Witheridge was raped and then bludgeoned to death with a garden hoe.
Michael Miller, brother of the slain David, said "justice" had been served.
"He should not have died that night... what happened to Hannah Witheridge is unspeakable. David always stood up for justice and justice is what has been delivered today," he said in a statement on behalf of his family.
"The forensic work performed was not the so-called shambles it was made out to be," he said, endorsing the Thai police probe and noting the lack of "remorse" shown by the accused.
Miller's parents were also at the court for the verdict but Witheridge's relatives did not make the journey.
Throughout the trial the defence disputed the forensic evidence as flawed and accused the police of torturing their clients into signing confessions, which they later retracted.
Rights groups say the case reflects a wider trend of low-paid migrant workers from neighbouring countries, including Myanmar, being blamed for crimes in Thailand where the justice system is easily bent by wealth and power.
Andy Hall of the Migrant Worker Rights Network and an advisor to the defence team said the pair "respected" the court decision but would appeal.
"They are sure that on appeal, they will be freed and truth will be revealed," he tweeted shortly after the verdict.
According to the Thai Corrections Department there are 456 prisoners on death row in Thailand and the last execution was carried out in 2009.
The police probe was dogged by accusations of incompetence, especially in the hours after the bodies were found with officers failing to seal off the crime scene or close the island's port.
Gruesome pictures of the victims' bodies also quickly emerged online, piling on the misery of their distraught families.
Initially officers appeared to flounder in their quest for the perpetrators but eventually arrested and charged Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun, also known as Wai Phyo.
Within days of their arrest Thai police said the pair had confessed. But the men soon retracted those confessions, insisting they were made under duress, a charge the police deny.
The murders stained Thailand's reputation as a tourist haven but did not prompt a significant fall in visitor numbers in a sector that has remained buoyant despite the nation's history of coups and conflict.
© 2015 AFP