September 23, 2015 / 7:49 AM / 2 years ago

Defense points to flaws in probe over Britons' Thai island murder

KOH SAMUI, Thailand (Reuters) - Lawyers defending two Myanmar migrant workers on trial for the Thai holiday island murders of two British backpackers sought on Wednesday to expose holes in a police investigation they maintain was botched and intended to frame the suspects.

Two workers from Myanmar (wearing helmets and handcuffs), suspected of killing two British tourists on the island of Koh Tao last month, stand near Thai police officers during a re-enactment of the alleged crime, where the bodies of the tourists were found on the island October 3, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

The conduct of Thailand’s police and treatment of its huge Myanmar labor force has been central to the trial of the young men accused of killing Hannah Witheridge and David Miller a year ago on the southern island of Koh Tao.

Post-mortem examinations showed the victims suffered severe head wounds and Witheridge was raped, but lawyers and activists say the two Myanmar accused, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, have been made scapegoats for the killings.

The case has attracted extensive media attention in Britain and raised questions about Thailand’s ability to protect its tourists. The bodies of Miller, 24, and Witheridge, 23, were found on a beach on the small island popular with backpackers and divers.

The hearings are taking place on nearby Koh Samui, where the defense would present a statement from a British expert who has analyzed surveillance camera footage being used as evidence.

The expert was contacted by Briton Andy Hall, a Thailand-based activist who specializes in protecting the rights of Myanmar laborers and exposing abuses.

“We saw a lot of instances of police abuse and torture that were happening and a concern for us is that the police were just focusing on ways to nail the two defendants,” Hall said outside the court.

“We believe, from my investigation, that they blocked out so much of other evidence that could have been used ... simply to focus on the two accused,” he said, referring to the police.

Police have stood by their investigation and Prime Minister Prayuth Cha n-o cha has said “nobody would dare” go after the wrong suspects because the case was so high-profile.

The defense has used Thailand’s foremost forensics expert to scrutinize DNA samples that police said tied the two men to the murders. The court has heard that DNA found on the murder weapon did not match that of the defendants.

The court ordered a reexamination of the samples after police said they had lost the DNA, then contradicted themselves.

They said in October the two Myanmar men, both 22, had confessed. But the suspects retracted those confessions, saying they were given under duress.

Defense lawyer Nakhon Chompuchat on Wednesday said his duty was to convince the judge to question whether the evidence had sufficient credibility to convict the men.

The case continues.

Additional reporting by Juarawee Kittisilpa in Bangkok; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel

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