Two Burmese men have been officially charged in connection with the murders of two British tourists in Thailand – amid international concern about the way the case has been handled.
Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, both 21-year-old bar workers, were accused of killing Hannah Witheridge and David Miller nearly three months ago. They deny killing the tourists.
The two men were charged with conspiracy to murder, conspiracy to rape and robbery by a public prosecutor at the Provincial Court on the island of Ko Samui, according to deputy police chief spokesman Colonel Kissana Phathanacharoen.
Neither man appeared in court to hear the charges, and they will have an opportunity to enter a plea at the next hearing, Mr Kissana said.
If they are found guilty, the suspects could be executed.
Ms Witheridge, 23, from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, and Mr Miller, 24, from Jersey were found dead on a beach on the island of Ko Tao on 15 September.
Post-mortem examinations revealed that Ms Witheridge, who had been raped, died from head wounds, and Mr Miller was killed by severe blows to the head and drowning.Local police claim the men have confessed to the crime, but it has been reported that a Burmese embassy official formally retracted their confessions in October amid suggestions the suspects had been tortured. This has been denied by the police.
Amnesty International has called for an investigation into the allegations. The UK-based charity cited a lawyer from the Burmese embassy legal team who said he had been told that police had beaten one suspect and “threatened him with electrocution”.
British detectives have flown to the country to assist the Royal Thai Police with the case.
Mr Kissana said: “They have been charged, both by the police and by the public prosecutor.
“They were charged by the public prosecutor this morning. The case is with the public attorney at the moment, and the public attorney has issued the prosecution order against the two men already, so now it is up to the court of law to decide.
“The public prosecutor has issued the order in order to forward the case to the criminal court.”
Mr Kissana said the two men will be held in custody and are entitled to request bail at any time.
The indictment was unexpectedly brought forward by three hours, the BBC said, meaning there was not enough time to bring the suspects from prison to hear the charges in court.
But Mr Kissana said in Thailand defendants do not have to appear in court to hear the initial charges, and they will have an opportunity to enter a plea at the next hearing.
He said: “Here in Thailand we are able to submit paperwork to the court without the appearance of the men, while they are held in custody. A judge will look at the documentation and decide when they will have the court hearing.”
The case has been repeatedly sent back by the public prosecutor to the police, asking for better evidence to allow the men to be charged.
Mr Kissana said police evidence is handed to prosecutors, “and then it is the prosecutor's duty to have a look at all the documentation and the case and see if they need more. They will then request the police to re-submit or admit additional documentation to the prosecutor”.
He added: “I cannot confirm how many times documents were sent back to police, but it is normal for the prosecutor to request the police to submit more documents or evidence to make the case complete.”
The brutal killings tarnished the image of Thailand's tourism industry, which has been struggling to recover since the army staged a coup and imposed martial law in May.
In pictures: Thailand beach murders
In pictures: Thailand beach murders
1/11 Thailand beach murders
Two Myanmar migrant workers suspected of killing two British tourists participate in a crime re-enactment
2/11 Thailand beach murders
The two suspects (wearing hard hats) during a re-enactment of the alleged crime
3/11 Thailand beach murders
Thai policemen conduct DNA tests on staff from two beachside bars as part of the investigation on the murder of two British tourists on the southern resort island of Koh Tao
4/11 Thailand beach murders
Police chiefs look at a beach near the spot where bodies of two killed British tourists were found on the island of Koh Tao
5/11 Thailand beach murders
Police in Koh Tao said they were liaising with officers in Bangkok to try and detain the second man
6/11 Thailand beach murders
People of Koh Tao offer their prayers
7/11 Thailand beach murders
A Thai villager lays flowers during a memorial service for two murdered British tourists at the crime scene on a beach of Koh Tao resort island
8/11 Thailand beach murders
A police searches for clues near the spot where bodies of two killed British tourists were found, on the island of Koh Tao
9/11 Thailand beach murders
Thai workers carry the bodies of two British tourists on Koh Tao island in the Surat Thani province of southern Thailand
10/11 Thailand beach murders
Hannah Witheridge, 23 was killed on the small island of Koh Tao on 15 Septembe
11/11 Thailand beach murders
David Miller, 24, was killed on the small island of Koh Tao on 15 September
Police faced a variety of criticism, starting with their failure to secure the crime scene and releasing several names and pictures of “suspects” who turned out to be innocent.
Under intense pressure to solve the case, which drew global attention, police carried out DNA tests on more than 200 people on the island. They said in October that the DNA evidence matched that of the two suspects. Police and prosecutors have said other evidence included close-circuit television footage linking the two to the crime.
Concerns have been raised that the two suspects are innocent “scapegoats”, and in October a petition signed by more than 100,000 people was handed in at 10 Downing Street demanding a new, independent investigation into the deaths.
UK police are understood to have been concerned about the verification of DNA samples of the suspects and allegations of their mistreatment.
Ms Witheridge, a student at the University of Essex, was described by her family as “a beautiful, intelligent, loving young woman who poured joy into the lives of all who knew her”.
Mr Miller finished studying civil and structural engineering at Leeds University in June, where he was on course to achieve a first-class degree. His family said he was a “hard-working, bright and conscientious” young man who would be “sorely, sorely missed”.
Additional reporting by agenciesReuse content