July 22, 2015 / 2:47 AM / 2 years ago

Thailand backpackers murder trial resumes, focus on DNA evidence

KOH SAMUI, Thailand (Reuters) - The final hours of two British backpackers killed on a Thai resort island last year were tracked by more than a dozen security cameras, a court was told during the resumption of the trial of two Myanmar men accused of their murder.

Myanmar migrant workers Zaw Lin (R) and Win Zaw Htun arrive at the Koh Samui Provincial Court, in Koh Samui, Thailand, July 22, 2015. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom

British tourists Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24, were killed last September and their bodies were found on a beach on Koh Tao, a Thai island in the Andaman Sea popular with backpackers and divers.

The killings drew outrage in Britain and raised questions about the competence of Thai police and the treatment of migrant laborers in Thailand.

Following weeks of pressure on authorities to solve the crime, Thai police said in October that Myanmar workers Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, both 22, had confessed to the killings. Both later retracted their statements, saying they had been tortured into confessing.

Their trial resumed on Wednesday and police told the court that closed circuit television footage showed the last movements of Witheridge and Miller as they went to two bars on the small island hours before they died.

Police Colonel Cherdpong Chiewpreecha, superintendent of Investigation Police Division 8, told the court 17 cameras dotted along a road on the island helped investigators trace the British pair’s movements.

Miller and Witheridge were at the same bar but were later seen leaving separately with their friends. Nobody unfamiliar to the pair was seen following them, Cherdpong said.

Defense lawyers earlier said they would focus on the reliability of crucial DNA evidence after allegations of police incompetence and evidence mishandling by defense lawyers.

Rights groups have also claimed the accused are being used as scapegoats because of their status as foreign migrant workers in Thailand.

At the heart of the trial is a debate over DNA samples that police say link the two suspects to Witheridge’s body.

Police have issued conflicting statements about the DNA, including that some was lost or “used up”. They later took back that statement, saying DNA samples had not been lost.

The court on Samui island ordered this month that remaining forensic evidence in the case be sent for reexamination at the Thai justice ministry’s central forensic institute.

“We still have not seen any progress on the request to see the DNA gathered by police,” defense lawyer Nakhon Chompuchat told Reuters before the trial resumed.

The mothers of the two accused have traveled from Myanmar for the trial. Outside the court, an emotional May Thein, the mother of Win Zaw Htun, said her son had never been in trouble and had gone to Thailand to earn money to support their family.

Editing by Paul Tait

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