KOH SAMUI: Two Myanmar migrant workers accused of murdering a pair of British backpackers on a Thai island face a verdict Thursday in a case that sullied the kingdom’s reputation as a tourist haven and raised questions over its justice system.
They both deny killing the British pair, whose battered bodies were found on a beach on September 15, 2014.
The men were arrested on October 2 after a high-profile police probe, which saw authorities come under intense pressure to solve a case that shocked the Thai public.
Prosecutors say the evidence against the men is rock solid, including DNA traces found on Witheridge’s body as well as the suspects being in possession of Miller’s phone and sunglasses.
But the defence have accused the police of bungling their investigation and using the Myanmar migrants — both aged 22 — as scapegoats.
Miller’s family arrived early Thursday at the court on Koh Samui, a larger island which neighbours Koh Tao.
They are expected to deliver a statement to the media after the verdict, but Witheridge’s relatives have not made the journey to Thailand.
A panel of three judges will deliver the ruling after a trial that spanned months and heard harrowing testimony about the murders.
Rights groups say the case reflects a wider trend of low-paid migrant workers from neighbouring countries, including Myanmar, being blamed for crimes in Thailand where the justice system is easily bent by wealth and power.
– ‘Stay strong’ –
The defence has disputed the forensic evidence as flawed and accused the police of torturing their clients into signing confessions, which they later retracted.
Their lawyers point to the fact the DNA found on the hoe did not match either of the suspects and say forensic gathering techniques were riddled with errors.
An advisor to the defence team who visited the accused on Wednesday said the pair were “tense” and “nervous”.
“But they’re both confident that they will be acquitted by the court… they said that whatever the result, they will stay strong and they will move forward into the future,” Andy Hall of the Migrant Worker Rights Network told AFP.
The police probe has been dogged by accusations of incompetence.
In the hours after the bodies were found police failed to seal off the crime scene or close the island’s port.
Gruesome pictures of the victims’ bodies also quickly emerged online, piling on the misery of their distraught families.
Initially officers appeared to flounder in their quest for the perpetrators, with suspicion by turns falling on several other migrants, a backpacker seen drinking with the victims on the night they died, and 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 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.
The murders stained Thailand’s reputation as a tourist haven but did not prompt visitor numbers to significantly tail off in a sector that has remained buoyant despite the nation’s history of coups and conflict.