Defense Cites Serious Shortcomings in Koh Tao Murder Probe as Trial Continues

By Saw Yan Naing 24 September 2015

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The defense team representing two Burmese men on trial for the murder of two British backpackers on a Thai resort island last year cited serious shortcomings in the police investigation as court proceedings continued Wednesday.

Burmese migrants Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo are standing trial for the killing of David Miller and Hannah Witheridge on Koh Tao in September last year. However, the handling of the case by Thai police has been the subject of significant controversy and the two Burmese men have alleged they were tortured into a confession.

Andy Hall, a Thailand-based migrant rights activist assisting the accused, told The Irrawaddy the police investigation was marred by allegations of misconduct, procedural faults and questionable evidence.

The interpreter used during interrogations was a Muslim Rohingya Roti seller whose Thai language ability was “very poor,” Hall said, labeling his involvement, given this deficiency, “unethical.”

He also questioned a Thai police claim that a mobile phone, allegedly seized from Wai Phyo and handed to British authorities, belonged to the deceased David Miller.

“UK police said they have never confirmed that it was David’s phone. They will complain to the Thai government on this issue,” Hall said.

Other evidence in dispute includes CCTV footage that police claim shows Wai Phyo running down a main street on the night of the murders. The defense refutes this claim and has tendered as evidence a statement by British forensics expert Stephen Cole, who analyzed the footage.

“Thai police cited no scientific evidence to suggest the ‘running man’ was Wai Phyo and based their conclusion on [him having] ‘similar looks,’” Hall said.

Defence lawyers also recently called upon Thailand’s Central Institute of Forensic Science, headed by Dr Pornthip Rojanasunand, to reexamine crucial DNA evidence. The institute found that DNA collected from a garden hoe believed to be used in the murders did not match the suspects’ DNA.

The case has shone a light on Thailand’s treatment of its vast migrant workforce, many of whom labor in dangerous industries for little pay and without access to legal recourse. Activists contend that the two accused have been made scapegoats for the murders.

Hall testified that in addition to unnerving evidence the accused Burmese men were tortured in police custody, other migrant workers claim similar mistreatment during the authorities’ hunt for suspects.

“One man told me he had been playing football with friends sometime after the murders when police approached the six of them. Three ran away but he was captured, beaten, and had a plastic bag put over his head for fifteen minutes to try to get him to disclose the names of the people who had run off,” Hall said.

On Thursday, members of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission and migrant workers are among those testifying for the defense at the court in Koh Samui. The Burmese Embassy defense team will put forward their case on Friday, with a final verdict expected in October.