July 8, 2015 / 1:25 AM / 2 years ago

DNA queried as Myanmar men go on trial for murder of UK tourists

Myanmar migrant workers Zaw Lin (R) and Win Zaw Htun (L) arrive at the Koh Samui Provincial Court, in Koh Samui, Thailand, July 8, 2015.Athit Perawongmetha

KOH SAMUI, Thailand (Reuters) - Two Myanmar men accused of murdering two British holidaymakers in Thailand went on trial on Wednesday in a case that caused outrage in Britain and raised questions about the competence of the Thai police and the treatment of migrant laborers.

British tourists David Miller, 24, and Hannah Witheridge, 23, were murdered last year on Koh Tao, or Turtle Island, a popular tourist destination in southern Thailand.

Thai police said in October that Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, two 22-year-old migrant workers from Myanmar, had initially confessed to the killings. The confessions followed weeks of speculation and pressure on police to solve the murders.

The pair, who deny charges of murder, rape and robbery, could face the death penalty if found guilty.

Police said DNA found on the victims matched the suspects but the two men later retracted their confessions, saying they had made them while being tortured.

Defense lawyers said there appeared to be discrepancies between DNA evidence held by Thai police and DNA tested by British police. A judge will decide on Thursday whether the defense can independently test the evidence, one lawyer told Reuters.

British police joined the investigation after Prime Minister David Cameron raised concerns with Thai counterpart Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Rights groups say the trial is a test case for Thailand's treatment of the 2.5 million migrant laborers, many from poor neighboring countries, on which it relies.

Others fear the pair are being used as scapegoats and will not receive a fair trial in a country where the poor and disenfranchised are rarely afforded justice.

Andy Hall, a Thailand-based migrant activist working with the defense, said the accused had not been given access to important evidence.

Witheridge was found raped and beaten to death on a beach in the early hours of Sept. 15, while Miller was beaten about the head and left to drown, post-mortem examinations showed.

The first witness called by the prosecution was Police Lieutenant Jakkapan Kaewkao who said Miller and Witheridge were found 12 meters apart on the beach and described injuries on their bodies.

Cross-examination centered on why police were slow to seal off the scene, why Miller’s body was moved before medics or a forensics team had arrived, why a doctor was not called until late and whether police on Koh Tao knew how to test DNA.

Jakkapan said he moved Miller’s body away from the water do it wouldn't be washed away.

The victims' families have traveled to Koh Samui, a nearby island where the trial is being held, and said they hoped to gain a better understanding of how the pair died "in such idyllic surroundings in such a horrible way".

The killings hurt Thailand's image as a tourist haven when the sector was struggling to recover after months of political unrest in 2014 kept some tourists away.

Many migrants take jobs Thais don't want in labor-intensive industries like agriculture, construction, and fishing. Others work as domestic helpers or cleaners in restaurants and hotels.

A verdict is expected in October.

Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie

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