October 22, 2014 / 6:33 AM / in 3 years

Thailand tourist murder suspects retract confessions

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Two Myanmar men accused of killing two British backpackers on a Thai holiday island have retracted their confessions, their lawyers said on Wednesday, adding further confusion to an investigation that has attracted widespread criticism.

Tun Tun Htike (C), father of Win Zaw Htun, one of two Myanmar workers accused of killing British tourists holds a picture of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej as his wife May Thein (R) cries in front of reporters after arriving in Bangkok October 22, 2014. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

The retractions also come amid growing diplomatic concern that the two accused may have been abused during interrogation. Thailand’s human rights commission said it would launch an inquiry into allegations of police torture.

The bodies of Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, were discovered on Sept. 15 by cleaners on a beach on Koh Tao, an island in the south of Thailand famous for its diving. Post-mortem examinations showed both suffered severe head wounds and Witheridge was raped.

The gruesome murders have dented tourism, which generates almost 10 percent of gross domestic product, at a time when Thailand is still under martial law after a May 22 coup that had already kept some visitors away.

Police said this month Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, both 21 and from neighboring Myanmar, had confessed to the murders and that their DNA matched DNA found on Witheridge - despite the fact that the two had yet to appear in court to face any charge and speak for themselves.

“They both retracted their confessions and have signed a document that was accepted by the public prosecutor,” said Nakhon Chompuchat, part of the Lawyers Council of Thailand legal team representing the pair.

Nakhon added that he was concerned about conditions in prison where the pair are being kept on the nearby island of Koh Samui.

“They have heavy chains around their ankles 24 hours a day which is how convicted prisoners are kept in Thailand, but they are not convicted prisoners.”

The inquiry has been dogged from the outset by contradictory statements by officials. Police were widely accused of bungling the investigation, including chasing the wrong leads and failing to seal off the crime scene quickly enough, and pressure grew for them to solve the crime quickly.

Thai coup leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha defended the investigation.

“No one would dare catch the wrong person,” he said this month.

Police deny that the men were tortured during interrogation and say they are being looked after well in prison. National police chief Police General Somyot Poompanmuang has also defended the investigation calling it a “perfect job”.

The parents of Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin arrived at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport on Wednesday from Myanmar to a scrum of reporters. Tun Tun Htike, Win Zaw Htun’s father, held a picture of Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, 86, as tears rolled down his face.

Lawyers say the families will visit their sons on Thursday.

Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre; Editing by Nick Macfie

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