Thai police competence questioned as Brit tourists murder trial opens

Migrant workers Zaw Lin (left) and Win Zaw Tun walk out of a police truck as they arrive for a court hearing.
Migrant workers Zaw Lin (left) and Win Zaw Tun walk out of a police truck as they arrive for a court hearing.AFP

KOH SAMUI, Thailand (AFP) - Defence lawyers for two Myanmar migrants charged with killing two British tourists in Thailand criticised police handling of the case as the trial opened Wednesday, accusing them of failing to secure the crime scene or call in medical experts quickly enough.  

Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun have both pleaded not guilty to the murder last September of 24-year-old David Miller and the rape and murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23, on Koh Tao island, where their bodies were left on a beach just a few hundred yards from the main tourist drag.  

Their deaths sent shockwaves across the Gulf of Thailand idyll, which is popular with backpackers and divers, and tarnished 
Thailand’s reputation as a tourist haven.

A Thai policeman said he found Miller “face down” in the shallow surf and dragged his bruised and battered body away from the sea, fearing it would float away, while Witheridge was discovered further up the beach.  

The two suspects, who have been in custody on neighbouring Koh Samui since October, arrived at court in a prison van with their feet shackled. They face several charges – including murder, rape and robbery – and if found guilty could face the death penalty.  

But the prosecution has been marred by allegations of a bungled investigation, with the defence claiming the migrants, who are low-paid workers in the tourism trade, were scapegoated by an under-pressure police force.

Both men retracted their initial confessions, saying they were coerced into making them.  

The defence questioned Wednesday why it took many hours for police to seal off the crime scene with rope and why a doctor was not called until much later in the day.  

The defence are also waiting for the court to decide on whether they can independently test controversial forensic evidence against their clients, which they say is essential for a fair trial.  

The judge said a decision on this would be made Thursday, according to Andy Hall, an activist for Migrant Worker Rights Network which is helping to fund the defence.  

A 'BRIGHT FUTURE' ENDED 

Family members of both victims were present in court and issued statements before the hearing.  “Just hours before he died David was talking to us with his usual enthusiasm, describing the beauty of Koh Tao and the friendliness of the Thai people,” Miller’s family said in their statement, adding that they hoped to “gain a better understanding” of how the young Brit died.  

“Hannah was a beautiful person, inside and out, she brought a room alive just being there,” the Witheridge family wrote in their statement. “Her bright future was brutally ended leaving those who loved her broken with no answers.”

Both families have appealed for privacy from the press for the duration of the trial, which is expected to take place over 18 days between Wednesday and September with a verdict due in October.  

The killings came as Thailand’s vital tourism industry was beginning to recover from months of violent street protests that culminated in a May 2014 military coup.  

The case also shone a light on Thailand’s many underpaid and often exploited Myanmar migrants who work in the lucrative tourist sector.