Thai Backpacker Murder Trial Under a Cloud

The trial of two 21-year-old Burmese migrant workers is set to get underway tomorrow [July 8] for the killings of two British backpackers, Hannah Witheridge and David Miller, on Sept. 15 last year.

The Thai justice system is as much on trial as the two migrants, Htun Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, who were collected up by Thailand’s notoriously corrupt and inept police on the tourism island of Koh Tao two weeks after the murders were committed. The trial, on the larger nearby island of Koh Samui, which was supposed to start last December, has been repeatedly delayed.

The bodies of the 23-year-old Witheridge and Miller, 24, were found on a Koh Tao beach on Sept. 15 last year. Witheridge had been raped before she apparently was beaten to death with a garden tool. Miller was also beaten but apparently drowned in the surf after being knocked unconscious.

Critics have said the suspects were arrested because the police, under enormous international pressure to solve a heinous crime, had to find the killers and picked out the two youths, who had migrated from Rakhine state in Myanmar to work in the tourist trade. They later confessed but quickly recanted the confessions to human rights groups, saying they had been beaten, scalded and tortured into admitting they had killed the two, that they were threatened with electrocution and being burned alive, and that they were innocent of the murders.

A litany of abuses emerged later. Police were said to have stood on the arms and legs of a third man arrested with Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin while a third policeman jumped up and down on his chest. He was later released. Investigators were said to have covered the suspects’ heads with plastic bags during the interrogation to induce near suffocation.

The police said the two had forfeited their right to legal representation. However, once the two contacted human rights organizations, they immediately asked for lawyers – who, after being appointed, said they had been denied access to critical evidence and the interrogation process. The defense lawyers are not being allowed by the Thai court to see any of the prosecution evidence in advance.

Nakhon Chomphuchat, the human rights lawyer who is leading the defense case, told The Guardian last year: “The defendants cannot fairly fight the case against them until their lawyers are able to know the case against them. The prosecution has not even provided witness lists, so it’s impossible to plan the defense strategy.”

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 Htun Zaw Lin and Wye Pho. While the two might actually have committed the crime, it has long been a Thai police practice to collect up the usual 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.

After the confessions, the two suspects were paraded before the press at the murder scene, which the Human Rights Lawyers Association condemned as an affront to the right to privacy and the freedom and dignity on the part of the suspects.

The lawyers association, in conjunction with other human rights groups, issued statement expressing “deepest concern about violation of the right to privacy of the victims’ families and the rights of alleged offenders.” The statement said that if the confessions were obtained under duress or being threat, such statements should not be admissible and adding that the officials who beat them, if it happened, should face prosecution.

When human rights organizations complained about the treatment of the two Burmese, the police threatened to prosecute for defamation anybody who complained about the botched investigation.

The case against the two coincides with a vow on the part of Prayuth Chan-ocha to clean up the legal system. The Thai Ombudsman, in an April report on its activities since its inception 12 years ago, included a statement by Chief Ombudsman Panit Nitithanprapas that her office had handled nearly 25,000 cases during the period and that the Royal Thai Police had been found to be "the most corrupt agency in Thailand."

Prayuth promptly appointed a new national police chief, Somyot Poompanmoung, who was later discovered to possess Bt355.8 million [US$10.9 million] in assets, which has done little to dispel that suspicion.

Migrant workers have taken a particular beating, according to Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. “Thailand’s police have a long and well documented history of abusing migrant workers from neighboring countries and despite repeated exposes, the enjoy virtually total impunity to do so,” Robertson told Asia Sentinel.

In an exhaustive report issued in 2013, Human Rights Watch said it had “documented migrant workers being tortured, extorted, sexually abused, and in some cases, killed by police and other local authorities. No wonder then that migrant workers learn to keep their heads down and run fast at the sign of any trouble or disturbances because they know if something goes wrong, the weight of the law is likely to come down most heavily on them.”

The families of the murdered backpackers last year expressed confidence in the Thai investigation and criticized the media for widespread reports that the two suspects were scapegoats. The Miller family’s statement issued by the British Foreign Office and printed by media in Bangkok, said: “From what we have seen, the suspects have a difficult case to answer. The evidence against them appears to be powerful and convincing. They must respond to these charges, and their arguments must be considered with the same scrutiny as those of the prosecution.”

The Foreign Office has previously said it released the family statements in the same way it would in any other similar case, and that this did not mean it necessarily shared the views.

Chomphuchat and his team have been told by the court in Koh Samui that the prison was refusing to arrange a room for him to meet the suspects to discuss the case. Instead, he has had to speak to them one at a time via telephone behind a plastic screen.