Myanmar pair face verdict over British murders on Thai paradise island

22 December 2015
Myanmar pair face verdict over British murders on Thai paradise island
Accused migrant workers Wai Phyo/Zaw Linn and Win Zaw Htun arrive at Samui Provincial Court on July 22, 2015. Photo: Migrant Worker Rights Network

Two Myanmar migrant workers could face the death penalty if convicted this week of murdering a pair of British backpackers on a Thai island, in a grim case that stained the kingdom's reputation as a tourist haven.
Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun have pleaded not guilty to killing David Miller, 24, and the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, on the diving paradise of Koh Tao in southern Thailand, with the defendants insisting they are scapegoats for a bungled inquiry.
The British pair were found bludgeoned to death on a beach on September 15, 2014 -- a grisly discovery that has troubled the country's vital tourism trade and raised questions over the Thai justice system.
Three judges on the nearby island of KohSamui are expected to deliver their verdict on Christmas Eve (Thursday) after a trial that has dragged on for several months.
The court has heard harrowing testimony of the murders, while defence lawyers have accused the police of bungling their investigation and using the Myanmar pair as scapegoats.
Rights groups say low-paid migrant workers from neighbouring countries, including Myanmar, are often blamed for crimes in Thailand where the justice system is skewed towards those with money and influence.
Miller was struck by a single blow and left to drown in shallow surf while Witheridge had been raped and then brutally beaten to death with a garden hoe.
Prosecutors insist their case against the men is watertight.
Their case pivots on DNA found on Witheridge's body and around the crime scene as well as the discovery of Miller's mobile phone and sunglasses with one of the suspects. 
But the defence has disputed the forensic evidence as flawed and accused the police of torturing their clients into signing confessions, which they later retracted.
"The prosecution case is marked by an absence of significant evidence needed to prove the guilt of the accused for the crimes they are charged with," the defence team said in a statement released ahead of the verdict.
- Questions remain –
In the days and weeks after the murders, Thai police came under intense pressure to solve the case.
Junta chief Prayut Chan-O-Cha ordered them to make swift arrests and publicly aired his own opinions about a case that garnered global media attention. 
Investigators have also struggled to shrug off accusations of incompetence.
Those were first voiced hours after the bodies were discovered when the crime scene was not sealed off properly and gruesome pictures of the victims' bodies emerged online.
Initial suspects ranged from a backpacker seen drinking with Miller and Witheridge on the night they died, to the son of an influential village headman. 
Police 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 they soon retracted those confessions, insisting they were made under duress, a charge the police deny.
During the trial, which family members of both victims attended, often breaking down in tears, the defence attacked the police's case saying key forensic evidence was circumstantial.
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.
Neither of the two suspects' DNA profiles were found on the garden hoe but profiles of other unknown people were, the defence said.
Under Thai law the prosecution is under no obligation to offer the defence prior discovery, making challenging the evidence, or independently testing forensic data, very difficult.
"What's clear is that no matter the verdict, the families of those two young people brutally murdered will not be sure they have received justice, or even the truth," Sam Zarifi, regional director of the International Commission of Jurists, told AFP.
It is not yet clear whether the parents of Miller and Witheridge will be present for the verdict on December 24. Christmas is not a public holiday in Thailand.
The defence team says the mothers of the two accused are expected to attend.