KOH SAMUI – Two Myanmar men were sentenced to death on Thursday for murdering two British backpackers on Koh Tao last year in an internationally watched case that raised questions about the the kingdom’s justice system and tourist safety.
Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun were found guilty of killing David Miller, 24, and the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, whose bodies were found on the resort island's Sai Ree beach on Sept 15 last year.
The two migrants were arrested about two weeks after the murders. Police said the pair confessed to the killings and that DNA samples linked them to the crimes. Both men later retracted their confessions, saying they had been coerced by the police and prosecutors shone an international spotlight on supposed holes in the evidence.
The court, however, put aside minor details, focusing principally on personal accounts and physical evidence.
"Both defendants are guilty of murder for which the penalty is the death sentence," an unnamed judge told the court, adding they were also "found guilty of rape and conspiracy to hide the crime." The pair also were sentenced to two additional years for theft and illegal entry into the country.
Both men are expected to appeal within the next month. In the interim, they will be moved from Samui Prison to the higher-security Nakhon Si Thammarat Prison.
In its ruling, the court said that prosecutors had presented evidence from the crime scene and provided witness testimony that proved "without any doubt to the court" that the two men had killed Miller and raped Witheridge before murdering her "to cover up their wrongdoings". DNA evidence showed that the semen of both men was found inside Witheridge, the court said.
The judge said there was no weight to the two men's claims that they had been tortured during interrogation by police.
The migrant workers, who were shackled in court, were grim-faced as the sentence was delivered. As their fates were being read out, the defendants mothers sobbed and consoled each other. Win Zaw Htun's mother cried loudly and then fainted as wardens took her son away.
Sue Miller, right, Ian Miller, left, and Michael Miller, centre, family members of British backpacker David Miller, speak to reporters outside of the court in Koh Samui Dec 24. (AP photo)
Miller's family told the German Press Agency the "evidence is absolutely overwhelming" against Myanmar defendants.
"We believe that the result today represents justice for David and Hannah," said Miller's brother Michael, on behalf of the family.
Miller's parents were also at the court for the ruling but Witheridge's relatives did not make the journey.
"The past year has served as an unimaginably impossible time for our family. We have found the trial process extremely difficult and our trips out to Thailand, to attend court, made for particularly distressing experiences," the Witherridge family said in a statement released Thursday. "We found listening to proceedings very challenging and we have had to endure a lot of painful and confusing information. 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."
A troubled investigation
From the start, the case raised questions about competence of Thai police investigators. Investigators faced a variety of criticism, starting with their failure to secure the crime scene and then for releasing several names and pictures of suspects who turned out to be innocent.
After Britain's Foreign Office expressed concern to Thai authorities about the way the investigation was conducted, British police were allowed to observe the case assembled by their Thai counterparts.
After recanting the confessions allegedly given after being tortured, the defendants pleaded innocent. Human rights groups repeatedly called for an independent investigation and raised concerns that the men might be scapegoats.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch called for the ruling to be reviewed in a "transparent and fair appeal process".
"In a trial where torture allegations by the two accused were left uninvestigated and DNA evidence was called into question by Thailand's most prominent forensic pathologist, both the ruling and these death sentences are profoundly disturbing," said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.
Andy Hall of the Migrant Worker Rights Network and an adviser to the defence team, said the pair "respected" the court decision but would appeal.
"The defence position is that prosecution didn't prove beyond doubt the main charges," he said after the judgment was read. "We believe that the evidence presented at court was full of holes, was incompetently collected, and incompetently analysed."
The killings tarnished the image of not only Thailand's justice system, but also its tourism industry, which was already struggling to recover after the May 2014 coup and imposition of martial law.
Miller and Witheridge's battered bodies were found partially clothed on a secluded section of beach popular with backpackers and scuba divers. Autopsies showed that the two, who had met on the island while staying at the same hotel, both suffered severe head wounds and that Witheridge had been raped.
"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," Mr Miller said after the court session in a statement released by the family.
Under intense pressure to solve the case, police carried out DNA tests on more than 200 people on Koh Tao.
Phyu Hew Nu (centre), mother of Myanmar defendant Zaw Lin (not pictured), cries as she leaves the Koh Samui Provincial Court after her son was sentenced to death for murder Dec 24. (AFP photo)
Once the arrests were made, the body blows to the police and courts kept on coming.
Win Zaw Htun testified that he was tortured, beaten and threatened so he would confess. He told the court that police handcuffed him naked, took pictures of him, "kicked him in the back, punched him, slapped him, threatened to tie him to a rock and drop him in the sea," according to defence lawyer Nakhon Chompuchat.
Zaw Lin, the other defendant, testified that he was blindfolded, beaten on his chest and told he would be killed if he didn't admit to the charges, Nakhon said, adding, "He also said he was constantly suffocated by a plastic bag that was put over his head until he passed out."
The case hinged on DNA evidence that police and prosecutors said linked the suspects to the crime but the defence says was flawed.
The defence said that the DNA found on a garden hoe police say was the murder weapon did not belong to the defendants. An expert witness testified that the hoe contained DNA from two males, but not the suspects.
"The prosecution case is marked by an absence of significant evidence needed to prove the guilt of the accused for crimes they are charged with," the defence team said in a statement released earlier this week.
On Thursday, Miller's family hit back at the accusations of sloppy fieldwork.
"The forensic work performed was not the so-called shambles it was made out to be," Michael Miller said, endorsing the Thai police probe and noting the lack of "remorse" shown by the accused.
While the two were sentenced to death, years of appeals likely await before any sentence is carried out.
Thailand hands out a significant number of death penalty sentences -- 55 in 2014, 50 in 2013 and 106 in 2012 -- but no one has been executed in the country since 2009.
According to the Corrections Department there are 456 prisoners on death row.