Investigation into deaths of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller, killed on Koh Tao in September, has been widely condemned
The Guardian, Monday 8 December 2014 15.28 GMT
The head of Thailand’s police is to discuss a controversial investigation into the murder of two young British tourists with British police chiefs, as a Thai court brought forward a trial date for the men accused of the killings.
Somyot Pumpanmuang, who heads the Royal Thai police, said he would also meet David Cameron, as well as the head of the National Crime Agency (NCA), Keith Bristow, while he is in London this week for a conference on child exploitation. Pumpanmuang said they would discuss the September murders of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on the island of Koh Tao and he would “update them on the prosecution and explain any issues they’re curious about”, the Bangkok Post reported.
An NCA spokesperson confirmed Bristow was to meet Pumpanmuang but said she could not give details. Cameron is expected to attend the conference. However, a Downing Street spokeswoman said: “There are no plans for the prime minister to meet the Royal Thai Police.”
Earlier on Monday, the two Burmese migrant workers accused of killing Witheridge, 23, from Norfolk, and Miller, 24, from Jersey, formally pleaded not guilty to the crime at a court hearing on the island of Koh Samui, near Koh Tao.
Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo, both 21, have insisted they had nothing to do with the crime, and said they were tortured by Thai police to extract initial confessions, which they soon retracted.
Tuesday’s hearing initially set a date of 25 February for the start of the men’s trial, which could see them sentenced to death. However, the court later brought this forward to 26 December, the suspects’ lawyer, Nakhon Chomphuchat, said.
Andy Hall, a British labour-rights activist who works with Burmese migrant workers in Thailand, said the change of date was “a concerning development”. There are fears the court is under pressure to push through a case which has attracted significant international scrutiny.
Both Burmese men are accused of raping Witheridge and beating her to death with a garden hoe, and killing Miller by striking him on the head and leaving him to drown in shallow surf. They are also charged with being in Thailand illegally, while Wai Phyo is charged separately with stealing Miller’s phone and sunglasses.
Rights groups, among them Amnesty International, have expressed concern at the claims the suspects were tortured, as well as wider worries about Thai police potentially using migrant workers as scapegoats for a high-profile crime which could harm the country’s vital tourism industry. The British government has also made its concerns known, with a Metropolitan police team sent to Thailand to look at the evidence gathered by detectives there.
The Met report has been shared with the victims’ families, who on Friday evening released statements through the Foreign Office saying the case against the suspects appeared “powerful and convincing”. Both families said they wished to see a fair and transparent trial, but they also expressed confidence in the Thai police investigation so far.
The Witheridge family said they were “confident in the work that has been carried out into these atrocious crimes”, and criticised the media for widespread reports into concerns Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo might have been used as scapegoats.
In their statement, the Millers said: “From what we have seen, the suspects have a difficult case to answer. The evidence against them appears to be powerful and convincing. They must respond to these charges, and their arguments must be considered with the same scrutiny as those of the prosecution.”
The suspects’ legal team said they were worried the statements could sway the court’s decision, noting that Thai police issued a tweet saying the comment meant their investigation had been vindicated.
Chomphuchat said he was surprisedto see such comments come via official Foreign Office channels. He said: “I understand that the parents might believe in the police investigation. But what they have said seems to anticipate the court’s decision.” The defence team has not yet been shown any details of the prosecution case.
A Foreign Office spokesperson said it had simply issued statements on behalf of the families, as it would in other cases. She added: “As in all such cases, the UK government wants whoever committed these murders brought to justice in a fair and transparent way.”