Thai Backpacker Murder Trial Under a Cloud
Burmese suspects say the confessions were beaten out of them
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.