Myanmar men Zaw Lin (left) and Win Zaw Tun leave Thailand's Supreme Court on Aug. 29 after it upheld the death sentence in a final appeal against their conviction for murdering two British backpackers on a Thai island. (Photo by EPA/RUNGROJ YONGRIT)
For two migrant workers from Myanmar, a pardon from the king of Thailand is their last hope to be freed from a death sentence for the murder of two British tourists.
On Aug. 29, Thailand’s Supreme Court upheld the finding of lower courts that Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun killed David Miller, 24, and Hannah Witheridge, 23, on the island of Koh Tao in September 2014. The pair also had convictions upheld for raping Witheridge.
They were sentenced to death by a Koh Samui court on Dec. 24, 2015. They have denied any involvement in the murder and their lawyers have appealed the decision twice within the Thai legal system.
Rights groups have said the migrants were used as scapegoats by the authorities, who were under pressure to solve a crime that made international headlines.
The convicted men’s legal team said they are preparing to send an appeal letter to the king of Thailand within 60 days as provided for under Thai law.
Clemency appeals are only usually granted by Thailand’s king to defendants who pleaded guilty and showed remorse.
Campaigners launched a petition at the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum at Thammasat University in Bangkok on Sept. 12 to seek royal clemency.
Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar and one of the campaigners at the forum, told media that they just want to highlight that justice is for everyone, whether a migrant worker or an undocumented immigrant.
“I hope the king will consider our appeal and make a sound judgment,” he added.
Myanmar’s ambassador to Thailand, Myo Myint Than, met with the convicted men at a prison near Bangkok on Sept. 6 and told them that their government is aiding efforts to submit a request for a royal pardon.
Thein Swe, union minister of labor and immigration, told media that he would continue cooperating with Thai authorities to secure a pardon.
“A royal pardon from the king of Thailand is the only option left, and civil society groups in Thailand are also working on it. The government will continue supporting in any way it can. The ministry is also helping the labor attaché and the ambassador in Thailand,” he said.
The minister added that MPs had also sent letters to Thai authorities. Furthermore, Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing asked Thai PM Prayut Chan-o-cha to show compassion to the Myanmar nationals during a meeting on Sept. 3.
“We would like to ask for leniency on the punishment imposed on two Myanmar migrant workers in consideration of the existing friendship between Myanmar and Thailand and to request to protect them in line with the law,” Min Aung Hlaing said.
Confessions 'made under duress'
On Sept. 2, supporters of the two migrants, including monks, gathered in front of City Hall in Yangon, the commercial hub of Myanmar, to request compassion from King Maha Vajiralongkorn to spare the men’s lives. They also sent a letter to the Thai embassy in Yangon.
The convicted men, who come from Rakhine State in western Myanmar, were working in the hospitality industry on Koh Tao at the time of the murders. They were arrested nearly two weeks after the tourists’ bodies were found. They originally confessed only to later recant, saying their admissions of guilt were made under duress.
The defense team argued that the police investigation was flawed due to mishandling of forensic evidence, abuse of suspects and intimidation of witnesses.
Police maintained that the DNA of Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Tun found at the crime scene, including on Witheridge's body, was handled according to internationally recognized procedures.
They also alleged that the men had been in possession of a mobile phone that belonged to one of the victims.
Andy Hall, an activist who served as an adviser to the defendants’ lawyers, said on Aug. 29 that the murder investigation was widely criticized both domestically and internationally due to alleged mishandling of forensic evidence and torture of the accused and migrant workers living on Koh Tao.
“The problems in this case relate to the justice system’s inadequacies in dealing with forensic and DNA evidence,” Hall told ucanews.com, adding that the case is not specific to migrant workers and not necessarily about scapegoating.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the watchdog is seriously concerned that Thai authorities failed to effectively investigate the men’s allegations that they were tortured during interrogation by police.
“It’s worth noting that migrant workers face major challenges in getting justice in the Thai judicial system,” Robertson told ucanews.com.
He said that under no circumstances should these two men face the death penalty, which is “a punishment Thailand should immediately abolish.”
In June 2018, Thailand carried out its first execution since 2009, prompting criticism by rights groups who had hoped the country was moving toward abolishing the practice.
Myanmar migrants make up the largest number in Thailand, with estimates putting the figure at 2.3 million out of a total of about 3.6 million, according to the 2017 U.N. Migration Report.