Burmese murder accused ask British backpackers’ families for help

Two Burmese men detained in Thailand for allegedly killing the British backpackers Hannah Witheridge and David Miller have told the Guardian they are innocent and have appealed to the victims’ families and the UK government to help them clear their names

Peter Walker in Koh Samui
The Guardian, Thursday 20 November 2014 13.16 GMT

Two Burmese men detained in Thailand for allegedly killing the British backpackers Hannah Witheridge and David Miller have told the Guardian they are innocent and have appealed to the victims’ families and the UK government to help them clear their names.

In their first media interview since being arrested almost eight weeks ago, Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, both 21, stressed their sorrow over the deaths of the Britons, whose battered bodies were found on a beach on the holiday island of Koh Tao on 15 September. But they said they were not involved and asked UK authorities to share with their lawyers the results of a Metropolitan police review of the Thai investigation.

The pair described their shock at being accused, and their concerns for their parents in Burma, who were reliant on the men’s earnings from bar work on Koh Tao.

The pair, who were arrested a fortnight after the double murder and face a possible death penalty, passed the Guardian an open letter addressed to the victims’ parents.

Handwritten in Burmese, and with their names signed in English, it reads: “We are really distraught about the loss of your children, and we share your grief. But we want to stress to you that we didn’t do anything wrong, and this crime was nothing to do with us.

“In order that the truth can be revealed, we want to ask for help from all of you to ensure that we get access to information that the British government has. We would like this information to be shared with our lawyers so the truth can come out. We really want to express our thanks for your help.”

Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo – the latter of whom was previously and incorrectly named by authorities as Win Zaw Htun – initially admitted to the murder of Miller, 24, who suffered head injuries and drowned in shallow water, and the rape and murder of Witheridge, 23, who died from severe head injuries. Police said they were motivated by sexual jealousy after seeing the Britons together on the beach.

However, the men then retracted their confessions, saying they had been tortured and threatened with death by their interrogators.

Thai police say they have DNA evidence linking the men to the crime. However, there have been doubts about the way this evidence was collected, especially given that a number of people walked across the murder scene before it was sealed off.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International have become involved, noting that Burmese migrant workers have previously been wrongly accused of crimes by Thai police.

The authorities had been under pressure to solve this particular murder case quickly as it threatened the country’s vital tourism industry.

A month after the murders the Foreign Office in London took the rare step of summoning a senior Thai diplomat to express its concern about the way the investigation had been handled. A Metropolitan police team flew to Thailand to review the case. The Foreign Office says the report has yet to be completed.

The suspects handed the letter to the Guardian on Wednesday at a court hearing in Koh Samui, the larger island near Koh Tao which acts as the local administrative centre, during which they were remanded in custody for a further 12 days.

The pair are not permitted to have documents in jail, so they wrote the letter in court.

During breaks in the hearing the men, dressed in baggy, numbered prison tunics, with their legs manacled by heavy chains, were able to answer questions via a translator.

Wai Phyo said the pair were placing much of their hope on British interest in the case. He said: “We want the parents of the victims and the British government to come together and help us fight for justice. We’re very sad at what happened and we want the people of Britain to know that we didn’t do it.

“I felt very scared when we were arrested, and also very shy that all these people were looking at me. I didn’t know what was happening. I am not a bad person. I’m a good person.”

Zaw Lin said he was worried about his family in Burma: “My father has died and I was providing for my mother. I’m just really worried about her now. Now we just want to go back to Burma. We don’t want to work here any more. I don’t care about being poor, I just want to be at home with my family.”

The pair said that on the night of the murder they had been drinking heavily and playing guitar on the beach, and by late evening were “so drunk we couldn’t walk properly”. They both said they had no idea who carried out the crime.

A number of reports have linked the killings to powerful Thai families in the region, where there has long been allegations of heavy involvement of organised crime in the tourism industry. Foreign Office advice to Britons travelling to Koh Tao and its neighbouring islands warns of regular sexual assaults and robberies.

The Burmese men remain in prison while police continue to compile a report for prosecutors, a document which has already been rejected by the lawyers several times. The men can be detained for a maximum of 84 days, meaning they must be tried or released by Christmas.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said she could not comment on the case until the Metropolitan police report was completed, after which the victims’ families would meet police officers.

“Detectives from the United Kingdom, who were in Thailand reviewing the investigation into the murders of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller, have returned to the UK to compile their report and to update the families of Hannah and David on their findings,” she said. “The police team wish to thank the Thai authorities for facilitating the visit. It is not possible to make any further comment about the review at this time.”

SOURCE www.theguardian.com