Thai fishermen sentenced to death for killing Briton

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The Independent Online

Two Thai fishermen were sentenced to death for the rape and murder of the British backpacker Katherine Horton yesterday. The 23-year-old was attacked while she was talking to her mother on her mobile phone and walking along the beach on the evening of New Year's Day. Her mother, Elizabeth Horton, heard her daughter's screams down the phone as she was set upon. Her attackers both raped her, beat her unconscious with a broken parasol handle, then dragged her into the sea, where she drowned.

In a statement, the Horton family thanked the Thai police for helping them "seek an end to the uncertainties of this tragedy".

Both Bualoi Posit and Wichai Somkhaoyai, who have been sentenced to die by lethal injection, confessed to police and pleaded guilty in court. They were also identified by DNA tests on traces left on Ms Horton's body. But concerns remain over the standard of the police investigation, and over whether they had a fair trial.

The case was closed by police and rushed through the courts at exceptional speed after Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai Prime Minister, personally intervened, saying it was damaging the tourism industry. The final verdict came just 16 days after Ms Horton's body was found floating in the sea by a jetskier on 2 January.

A picture is emerging of police frantic to solve the case and willing to cut corners. A 17-year-old worker at the beachside bungalows where Ms Horton was staying told The Independent he had been beaten by police trying to get him to say that the bunglows' owner, Amnoi Dechenna, who had been a suspect, was the killer.

"They put a shirt over my head so I couldn't see anything. They beat me on the back of my head and scraped my leg open with a gun barrel. They tried to get me to say he did it, but I refused," said Por Kanthon.

The two men who were sentenced yesterday were originally identified to police by another crew member of their fishing boat.

Thai police told The Independent they felt under pressure to solve the murder quickly. Cases like this can lie unsolved for years in Thailand. The unsolved case of British backpacker Kirsty Jones, who was murdered five years ago, has just been reopened.

But in this case the two fishermen were arrested on 9 Monday January, just a week after Ms Horton's body was found.

Trial proceedings often drag on for months in Thailand. But the two fishermen's trial was over in a single day's hearing. The defence brought no witnesses. The two accused were twice offered the chance to give evidence, but both times they were also told their statements would be enough, and they nodded.

Before the trial was over, the Prime Minister intervened again, to call for the heaviest penalty possible - the death sentence. "They deserve a most severe penalty because they have done huge damage to the country," he said.

Yesterday's sentence ignored a long-standing tradition in Thai jurisprudence, that those who confess and plead guilty are spared the death penalty, and sentenced to life in prison instead. It has been suggested this was the reason the two men confessed, and their lawyer, Amarin Nuimai, was at pains to stress the fact they had confessed in court.

The Horton family said yesterday that earlier reports that Ms Horton's mother was opposed to the death penalty were not true. "Our family have neither made their views known, nor expressed any comment in relation to the court in Thailand imposing the death penalty," they said in a statement.

The evidence against the two men hangs on their confessions and the DNA tests. The forensics expert who did the tests, Pattana Kitkailart, told the court that the odds against the results being wrong were six billion to one.

According to the Thai police, the two fishermen confessed they had been watching porn videos and drinking and decided to swim in to shore. As they arrived they saw Ms Horton, who had wandered away from her friends to phone her mother and wish her a happy new year.

The two men have 30 days to appeal.