BANGKOK — The first week of the trial of two Burmese men accused of murdering British tourists on a Thai island last year has done little to shed light on a case that has been shrouded in mystery from the start.
Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, both 22, have been charged with murder, rape, and theft over the deaths of British travelers David Miller, 24, and Hannah Witheridge, 23. The tourists’ badly beaten bodies were found on Koh Tao’s Sairee beach in the early morning of 15 September 2014.
The gruesome murder shocked the idyllic resort island and captured the attention of the foreign press, who detailed police’s every stumble in a wayward investigation that ended with the arrest of Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo several weeks later.
The suspects initially confessed after being interrogated by police without a professional interpreter or lawyer, but later declared their innocence and said they were tortured. They could face the death penalty if convicted.
Suspicions that the Burmese men were used as scapegoats to wrap up a case that was threatening to harm Thailand’s tourist industry were compounded last year by reports of locals refusing the speak to journalists, citing fears of “powerful families” on the 21 km2 island.
Despite hopes that the first round of witness examinations last week would provide clarity on the murder, questions remain about what police have described as their “watertight” case, and rumors about a suspected cover-up continue to flourish.
'Used up evidence'
In response to the defense team’s repeated calls for access to forensic evidence that the prosecution said links Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo to the rape and murder, police revealed in court that swabs taken from semen found in Witheridge’s body are no longer available because they were “used up” in the original testing, which was conducted privately.
“For police to say they don’t have these materials completely undermines the credibility of their investigation,” said Andy Hall, a migrants' rights activist from the UK who is assisting the defendants.
The only evidence available for the re-examination approved by the Koh Samui court on Friday are the sharp garden hoe allegedly used in the murder, a shoe, sock, and bags from the scene. Last week, a partially blind Burmese beach cleaner told the court he spotted the garden hoe at the scene before police arrived, and returned the tool to its normal spot nearby. Upon police's request, he later retrieved the hoe, which he said he was unaware was covered in blood.
“The garden hoe yielded no DNA traces and no fingerprints, according to police,” said the defendants’ lawyer, Nakhon Chompuchat. “But we think there should be something left.”
Nakhon Chompuchat (L) and Andy Hall (R) speaking to reporters outside the court on 9 July 2015.
The defense has requested the remaining evidence be re-tested by the Central Forensic Institute, an agency administered by the Ministry of Justice.
"We want an independent agency to retest [the evidence]," said Nakhon, the lawyer representing the accused. "Not the police, because the police are intent on sending the suspects to jail. And their method is neither consistent nor transparent. Only two people were present for the entire process: a police officer and a police doctor. There were no photographs of the process, either. When we mentioned this in the court, they quipped that we have been watching too much CSI."
An officer at the police station that oversees Koh Tao said he was unable to comment because he has been strictly ordered by his superiors not to speak on the record while the trial is ongoing.
Hush-hush local coverage
In addition to the “used up” evidence, suspicions about police’s case against the Burmese men have been fanned by a lack attention from the Thai press.
“I wonder if there's any attempt by Thai media to cover-up the trial, because there's been so little news reports about it,” Nakhon told Khaosod English.
Some foreign reporters commented on the lack of a Thai media presence at last week's court hearings, which Hall said was only attended by 2-3 Thai journalists, compared to 15-20 reporters from foreign news outlets.
“In the beginning of this case I had the Thai media calling me 24 hours a day,” said Hall. “[Since the trial] I have not had one Thai media language person contact me. Not one. I am shocked.”
Most of Thailand’s mainstream newspapers have provided scant coverage of the court hearings, solely relying on quotes provided by police officers.
Reporters have also been barred from taking notes during the trial, which has led to further confusion. According to Hall, court officials said they decided to prohibit note-taking in order to ensure that the media did not take and report “inaccurate” notes.
“The justification doesn’t make much sense to me,” he said, adding that the Thailand's criminal justice system is critically weakened by the lack of verbatim records of court proceedings.
The prosecution’s second round of witness examinations is scheduled to start on 22 July, with a verdict expected in October.
Relatives of Miller and Witheridge flew back to the UK this weekend after attending the first court session, while the mothers’ of the two Burmese defendants are seeking to secure visas to attend the trial next week.
Timeline of the Koh Tao murder investigation (click to expand)