Koh Tao murders: World watches as Burmese migrants go on trial
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Koh Tao murders: World watches as Burmese migrants go on trial

At 8am Wednesday the two Burmese migrants accused of murdering British backpackers Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on an idyllic Thai island last year arrived at Koh Samui Court ahead of the beginning of their trial.

Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, both 22, were charged in December last year, less than three months after the bodies of Miller, 24, and Witheridge, 23, were found on Sept. 15 on a beach on Koh Tao. Autopsies showed the British backpackers had suffered severe head wounds and Witheridge had been raped.

Police have said that DNA evidence proves the suspected killers were the two men from Burma (Myanmar), who were working illegally in the country.

Speaking to the media ahead of Wednesday’s proceedings, lead defence lawyer Nakhon Chomphuchat said, “this appeared to be a situation where the accused had been tortured to confess to the crimes they are accused of.”

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Hannah Witheridge and David Miller.

The court began hearing from prosecution witnesses Wednesday, with prosecution testimonies expected to run until Friday. A verdict isn’t likely before October, with the trial likely to run until late September.

The Guardian reported on the testimony of Police Lieutenant Jakkapan Kaewkao, who described the scene where the bodies were found: “He said he found David Miller face down in the surf and Hannah Witheridge 12 metres away on the beach.”

The families of Witheridge and Miller were present at Wednesday’s proceedings, and saw images of the young backpackers’ bodies as they were shown to the court.

The court is also considering the defense team’s April 2015 request for re-examination of key parts of the case’s forensics evidence including crucial DNA materials implicating the two Burmese men.

The high-profile case has brought the investigation and the conduct of the Thai police under the international spotlight. The two Burmese, who confessed to the crime and were forced to publicly re-enact the murders on the beach where the bodies were found, later retracted their confessions saying they were tortured.

Police, and even Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, said they suspected migrant workers of the crime even when the investigation was in its infancy.

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Thai officers walk near the bodies of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller after their bodies were found on a beach in Koh Tao last year. Pic: AP.

Speaking to Asian Correspondent last year, British migrant workers’ rights activist Andy Hall, who is working for the defence, said he found it hard to believe they could have committed the murders.

“I just don’t believe they could do something like that, not just because of their size but because of their nature,” Hall said.

He added that his main concern is to ensure that they receive a fair trial.

“All I’m trying to do is ensure fairness for all sides,” he said.

“This kind of scapegoating, abuse, [it’s] something that migrant workers have never really stood up about,” he added.

The family of Witheridge said in a statement on Wednesday: “Hannah was a beautiful person, inside and out, she brought a room alive just being there. She was fun, honest and loved life. Her bright future was brutally ended, leaving those who loved her broken with no answers. We ask that the media treat Hannah with dignity in their reporting of the trial.”

“Please allow the police and the court to do their jobs during the coming weeks and months. We of course want to see those responsible for the brutal murder of our precious girl brought to justice.”

Miller’s family said: “The act which ended David’s life devastated our family and his friends. 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.”

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The accused pictured during a re-enactment of the murder on the Koh Tao beach last October. Pic: AP.

“Over the coming weeks we hope to gain a better understanding as to how such a wonderful young man lost his life in such idyllic surroundings in such a horrible way.”

The case has also attracted attention to some other suspicious deaths of tourists on the holiday island, which is known for its scuba diving, in recent years.

In January, images circulated on the internet suggested that a 29-year-old Frenchman found hanged on the island had his hands bound behind his back when he died. Police later issued a statement declaring the death a suicide.

British media have also raised suspicion over the death of Nick Pearson, a young English tourist whose body was found on a Koh Tao beach on January 1, 2014. The parents of the man have been outspoken in what they say is a cover-up for murder and a dubious investigation by police.