KOH SAMUI – A unnamed Judge in a Thai court in Koh Samui, Thailand has sentenced Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun, two Myanmar migrant workers to death on Thursday.
Human Rights Watch called the verdict “profoundly disturbing,” citing the defendants’ accusations of police torture that were never investigated and questionable DNA evidence linking them to the crime.
But the family of one of the victims said they believed justice had been done.
In his ruling, the unnamed Judge on Koh Samui island said 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.
It said its ruling did not depend on what the defendants said during interrogation by police. The men have said confessions they made were extracted under duress.
Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun were charged with the murder of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller, who were found on a beach on the island of Koh Tao in September 2014. Police said Witheridge, 23, had been raped and bludgeoned to death and Miller, 24, suffered blows to his head.
Following pressure to solve the case, police arrested Myanmar 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 follow an investigation that triggered allegations of police incompetence, mishandling of evidence and DNA tests and torture of the suspects.
The ruling caused outrage in Myanmar and dozens of police were deployed to guard the Thai embassy in Yangon amid calls on social media for a protest. About 10 people stood outside the building holding placards demanding their release.
Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin, both 22, have denied killing David Miller, 24, and raping and then murdering Hannah Witheridge, 23. Their defense attorney said they planned to appeal.
Myanmar Facebook user Myo Phont described the outcome as “entirely predictable”.
“Poor boys – wrong time, wrong place …the Burmese are the scapegoats as usual.”
A Facebook user named Thiri posted: “Is it real? What the hell? DNA doesn’t match and still death sentence?”
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 Witheridge’s body matched that of the defendants.
The debate over DNA samples that police say linked the two suspects to Witheridge was core to the trial.
Defense 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.
Thailand’s best known forensics scientist, Porntip Rojanasunand, testified that police had mishandled evidence, including the hoe the authorities say was the murder weapon. She tested the hoe and found that it contained DNA from two males — but not from the suspects.
Human Rights Watch called for the verdict to be reviewed in a “transparent and fair appeal process.”
“In a trial where torture allegations by the two accused were left un-investigated and DNA evidence was called into question by Thailand’s most prominent forensic pathologist, both the verdict and these death sentences are profoundly disturbing,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“PAINFUL AND CONFUSING INFORMATION”
Miller’s family attended the verdict and 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,” said Miller. “The Royal Thai Police conducted a thorough and methodical investigation … evidence against the two was overwhelming.”
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. Defense 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.
Zaw Htay, a senior president’s office official, said Myanmar would explore all legal and diplomatic means and “leave no stone unturned” to secure the release of “two innocent men”.
By Amy Sawitta Lefevre