Thailand backpacker murders: Britain too quick to accept Thai court’s verdict

If two Britons had been sentenced to death row, and this much doubt surrounded their case, the outcry would be huge

On Christmas Eve, a Thai court sentenced two Burmese workers to death for the murder of the young British travellers Hannah Witheridge and David Miller, on a beach in Koh Tao last year. The facts of the case appal: Ms Witheridge was raped before she died, and Mr Miller bludgeoned and left to drown in the sea. The reaction of the families to the verdict, welcoming the conviction and seeking to draw a line under the tragedy, is understandable. 

Yet serious questions remain, and they should not be brushed aside in deference to the terrible suffering the parents of Mr Miller and Ms Witheridge have undergone. The bar workers quickly withdrew their initial confession, claiming they had made it after they were tortured. The crime scene was allegedly mishandled; the investigation into a powerful Thai family was dropped, and the commander who led that operation transferred; and the key piece of  evidence linking the two men to Ms Witheridge by DNA on a cigarette was never produced for the court. Thailand’s best-known forensic expert was barred from the investigation. 

If a scapegoat was being sought, these two men fall into the right category. Burmese immigrants are routinely abused in Thailand. Many live in refugee camps. The Foreign Office has been overhasty to consider the matter closed, when lawyers for Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo promise to appeal and a Supreme Court date could follow. Britain’s reputation is tied up with this case: diplomats should be in no hurry to follow the Thai government’s line, especially in view of the ruling military junta’s course of increasing censorship and repression. If it were two Britons that had been sentenced to death row, and this much doubt surrounded their case, the outcry would be huge. We should not turn our backs merely because they are Burmese.