DNA evidence questioned as Koh Tao trial opens

DNA evidence questioned as Koh Tao trial opens

Myanmar migrant workers Zaw Lin (right) and Win Zaw Htun arrive at the Koh Samui Provincial Court July 8. (Reuters photo)
Myanmar migrant workers Zaw Lin (right) and Win Zaw Htun arrive at the Koh Samui Provincial Court July 8. (Reuters photo)

KOH SAMUI — The trial of two Myanmar men accused of murdering two British backpackers on Koh Tao opened Wednesday with defence lawyers questioning the competence of police.

Attorneys for Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, said there appeared to be discrepancies between DNA evidence held by Thai police and DNA samples tested by British police.

British police joined the investigation after Prime Minister David Cameron raised concerns with Thai counterpart Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha.

Andy Hall, a migrant activist working with the defence team, said the accused had not been given access to important evidence.

After the trial started, Mr Hall told AFP the judge will decide whether the defence can independently test the controversial forensic evidence against their clients on Thursday.

"We feel confident he will allow it," he said of tests the defence have been demanding for months in order for a "fair trial".

The first witness called by the prosecution was Pol Lt Jakkapan Kaewkao, the second police officer at the scene, who said British tourists David Miller, 24, and Hannah Witheridge, 23, were found 12 metres apart on the beach and described injuries on their bodies.

The victims' families have travelled to Koh Samui, a nearby island where the trial is being held, and said they hoped to gain a better understanding of how the pair died "in such idyllic surroundings in such a horrible way".

The families of both victims released statements early Wednesday confirming their attendance at the imposing courthouse perched on a hill overlooking Samui's lush palm trees and white beaches.

"Just hours before he died David was talking to us with his usual enthusiasm, describing the beauty of Koh Tao and the friendliness of the Thai people," Miller's family said in their statement.

"Hannah was a beautiful person, inside and out, she brought a room alive just being there," the Witheridge family wrote in their statement. "Her bright future was brutally ended leaving those who loved her broken with no answers."

Both families appealed for privacy from the press for the duration of the trial, which is expected to take place over 18 staggered days between now and September with a verdict due in October.

Witheridge was found raped and beaten to death on a beach in the early hours of Sept. 15, while Miller was beaten about the head and left to drown, post-mortem examinations showed.

Police said in October that Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun had initially confessed to the killings of the young backpackers on a Koh Tao beach. The confessions followed weeks of speculation and pressure on police to solve the murders.

Police said DNA found on the two victims matched the suspects but the two men later retracted their confessions, saying they had made them while being tortured.

The defendants, who deny charges of murder, rape and robbery, could face the death penalty if found guilty.

Rights groups say the trial is a test case for Thailand's treatment of the 2.5 million migrant labourers, many from poor neighbouring countries, on which it relies.

Others fear the pair are being used as scapegoats and will not receive a fair trial in a country where the poor and disenfranchised are rarely afforded justice.

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