Death Sentence for Thai ‘Death Island’ Defendants a Mockery

The Thai Supreme Court’s August 28 decision upholding the death sentence for two Myanmar migrants for the 2014 murders of British tourists Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on the island of Kho Tao is regarded by critics as a travesty of justice to protect the clan that controls the island, which has long been considered little more than a criminal gang.

The two defendants, Htun Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, were found guilty of killing the two backpackers and raping Witheridge in December of 2014. The two were beaten to death with garden tools.

While the island has been called a paradise for skin-divers and backpacker tourists, it has a dark side. At least nine European tourists have died or disappeared on Kho Tao since the deaths of the two backpackers, beginning with a 32-year-old British IT consultant who died in 2012. In June of 2018, a 19-year-old British tourist allegedly became the latest victim of violence charging that she had been raped. Police denied the rape had occurred. After pressure was brought by the British press and authorities, police opened an investigation and interviewed the victim in the UK, but said they had found no evidence to support her claim of rape and closed the case.

That, critics say, is evidence of the clout of the clan, which is believed have links to Thai Mafiosi connected to powerful southern Thailand politicians Prawit Wongsuwan, the former minister of defense and army commander-in-chief, who is now deputy prime minister, and Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister and former secretary-general of the Democrat Party.

The 2015 verdict against the Myanmar migrants drew widespread criticism from human rights groups given a long list of flaws in the case. After being given access to human rights organizations, the two immediately recanted their confessions, describing in graphic detail how the admissions were beaten out of them and that they had been scalded, tortured and threatened with electrocution.

“With their shoddy handling of cases like the Koh Tao murder case and the Bangkok bombing, the Thai police are rapidly becoming laughingstocks in international justice circles,” a representative for a western NGO told Asia Sentinel at the time of the original sentencing. “At this rate, is it a wonder that tourists from around the world are asking a new question – ‘is it really safe to go to Thailand?’ When are the powers that be in Bangkok going to figure out that jailing scapegoats while real culprits go free is not a persuasive answer to that question?”

The police and courts reportedly ignored testimony by Pornthip Rojanasunand, chief of the Central Institute of Forensic Science, that her agency’s inspection of the weapon used to kill the backpackers actually contained traces of DNA from unknown individuals, and that the agency didn’t find any from the two accused. There were neither fingerprints nor other evidence that tied the two to the murders. Nonetheless, the prosecution came up with DNA samples that did match.

“Police investigators are solely relying on their claim that the DNA in the sperm found on Hanna Witheridge is that of the two Burmese defendants but they have not produced any independent corroborative evidence linking them to the murder,” said the NGO representative.

Thai police, he said, “had no proper and adequate chain of custody documents for the court; no photos of any of the DNA analysis processes, no case notes, no written description of testing processes,” the source said. “Originally they just had charts of DNA profiles. No DNA information was presented at all on the cigarette butts (found near the bodies), just a piece of paper saying they matched. The defense further highlighted the fact that the DNA sperm data was written, crossed out, and revised and dates and times were clearly wrong.”

Police Under Pressure to find Scapegoats

Htun Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were collected up by Thailand’s notoriously corrupt and inept police two weeks after the murders were committed. Critics have said the suspects were arrested because the police, under enormous international pressure to solve a heinous crime, had to find killers and picked out the two youths, who had migrated from Rakhine state in Myanmar to work in the tourist trade.

The police investigation was a mess, with media and onlookers allowed to trample the murder scene and with a wide range of suspects targeted before the police settled on the Myanmese. The two were forced to reenact the murders at the crime scene while being filmed by television cameras.

It has long been Thai police practice to collect up luckless suspects, usually foreigners, and charge one or two, especially if a politically powerful figure or his relatives had actually committed the crime instead. Police initiated blanket DNA testing of the migrant community living on Koh Tao, leading to well-justified fears that migrants would be arrested.

There were procedural problems connected to police incompetence. Dozens of people wandered through the crime scene. Collection of DNA evidence was badly handled. When the two defendants’ confessions fell apart because they said they were tortured, the police and the prosecutors showed no interest in investigating their claims.

Lawyers for the two said they would request a royal pardon, which is allowed under Thai law. The country retains the death penalty but rarely employs it.