Thai king commutes sentences of two men on death row for murdering British backpackers

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The bodies of 23-year-old Hanna Witheridge and 24-year-old David Miller were discovered in September 2014 on a beach on Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand.

They were partially undressed and had sustained severe head injuries. Witheridge had been raped.

Two Burmese men, Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo — also known as Win Zaw Htun — were arrested almost two weeks after the bodies were found. In 2015, they were both found guilty and sentenced to death. Now, they will instead face life imprisonment, said Nakhon Chompuchat, the two men’s defense lawyer.

On Friday, the Thai king passed a mass royal pardon for those on death row who have exhausted all appeal options and have never before received a royal pardon.

“This time will be their first time. So for this time, they are entitled to receive it,” said Chompuchat. “They are no longer in the execution queue.”

The royal pardon was created in the spirit of the king’s birthday, to offer convicted prisoners the opportunity to “reverse their behavior and become good citizens,” says the text of the law.

High profile case

The two men, from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, were working in the hospitality industry on the island at the time of the killings. After their arrest, they confessed but later recanted, saying their admissions of guilt were made under duress.

The murders on the popular dive island of Koh Tao drew intense media attention from across the world. Defense lawyers for the two men later alleged that police had rushed the investigation to preserve Thailand’s image as one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

Thailand's Supreme Court upholds death penalty for men convicted of murdering British backpackers

The defense argued that the investigation was flawed due to “alleged mishandling of forensic evidence, abuse of suspects and intimidation of witnesses,” according to a previous statement issued by the Migrant Worker Rights Network, a rights group assisting the defense team.

Thai police said forensic evidence, including DNA samples from cigarette butts found near the bodies, tied the men to the scene.

The first appeal upheld the guilty verdict in 2017. The case was appealed again, leading the Supreme Court to uphold the verdict and death sentence. The Supreme Court ruled that the forensic evidence was “clear, credible, and detailed,” and refuted suggestions that the police had mishandled the case.

In 2018, Thailand lifted a de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty, executing a man by lethal injection in the country’s first execution since August 2009, rights groups said.

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