British backpacker murders accused could face death penalty


Two men could face the death penalty over the brutal murders of a pair of British backpackers in Thailand as the long-awaited verdicts in their trial are expected to be delivered.

The battered bodies of Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, were discovered on a beach on the idyllic holiday island of Koh Tao on September 15 last year.

Burmese migrants Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, also known as Win Zaw Htun, initially confessed to the killings but later retracted their statements - claiming they had been tortured by police. They could be sentenced to death if found guilty.

Three judges are expected to return their verdicts at a court on the island of Koh Samui following more than a year of legal proceedings.

Mr Miller's father Ian, mother Sue and brother Michael arrived at court where a number of camera crews and reporters were waiting outside.

Andy Hall, an international affairs adviser with the Migrant Worker Rights Network (MWRN), which has represented the defendants, said the two suspects felt "confident" about the hearing after he visited them in prison.

He told the Press Association: "They said they expected to get justice. They seemed nervous and on edge as well. 

"Whatever the decision, they will remain strong." 

It is understood the family of Mr Miller were planning to travel to Thailand for the verdicts. They attended the opening of the trial in July when they said they "simply want to see justice done fairly and openly."

Prosecutors say DNA evidence collected from cigarette butts, a condom and the bodies of the victims, links the two suspects to the killings.

But lawyers representing Lin and Phyo, both 22, say DNA samples from the alleged murder weapon - a garden hoe - does not match that of the two suspects.

The defence team claims DNA evidence was mishandled by police and the defendants' confessions were a result of "torture or abuse that made them fear for their lives" in the context of "systematic abuse" of migrants on Koh Tao.

A bizarre re-enactment of the murders in which the suspects were paraded in front of the media was also "staged under threat of violence", the lawyers added.

Thai police have denied using force during their investigation.

Miss Witheridge, a University of Essex student from Hemsby, Norfolk, and Mr Miller, of Jersey, who had just completed a civil and structural engineering degree at the University of Leeds, met on Koh Tao while staying at the same hotel. 

Post-mortem examinations showed that both had suffered severe head wounds. Miss Witheridge had been raped while Mr Miller died after being hit over the head before drowning in the sea.

British police officers travelled to Thailand to help with the investigation into the deaths following a direct appeal from Prime Minister David Cameron to Thailand's military ruler.

The intervention came after General Prayuth Chan-ocha was forced to apologise for suggesting that foreign visitors to his country's world-famous beaches might be unsafe wearing bikinis following the murders. 

The mothers of the two suspects are also expected at the hearing which was due to start at 9am local time (2am in the UK).