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Thailand's backpacker murders appeal goes forward

Controversial case highlights brutality of capital punishment

ucanews.com reporter, Phnom Penh

ucanews.com reporter, Phnom Penh

Published: November 11, 2016 10:14 AM GMT

Updated: November 11, 2016 10:18 AM GMT

Thailand's backpacker murders appeal goes forward

Myanmar nationals Zaw Lin (left) and Win Zaw Htun (right) are escorted out of the Koh Samui provincial court following their death sentence on Dec. 24, 2015. Thailand is one of eight Southeast Asian nations who have the death penalty. (Photo by AFP)

Following six months of prosecutorial delays, a Thai court on Nov. 11 agreed to forward an appeal against the controversial murder convictions given to two Myanmar migrant workers for the 2014 slaying of a pair of British backpackers, according to the defense.

After the prosecution asked for nine delays, the court earlier this month gave them until Nov. 10 to file a response to the appeal. Defense attorney Nakhon Chompuchat said that after the prosecution failed to do so by that date, the file was being sent to the appeal court.

"Yesterday was the last day of the appeal and my staff checked, [there was] no appeal of the prosecutor. So today Koh Samui Court had to send all files to the appeal court," Nakhon said.

At the end of last year, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun — both 22 at the time — were sentenced to death for the murder of David Miller, 24, and the rape-murder of Hannah Witheridge, 23.

The backpackers had been brutally murdered on the holiday island of Koh Tao, where a badly bungled three-week investigation left many questioning the ultimate fingering of the suspects.

The subsequent court case drew international outcry over translation issues, delays and torture allegations. In the 200-page appeal lodged in May, the defense poked holes in everything from the handling of DNA evidence to an inadequate investigation of potential suspects.

Nakhon said it could take up to two years for their appeal to be considered, but he was hopeful it would be overturned.

"If they study it in deep detail," he said, "we hope that."


Capital punishment

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For some, the case — marred with abnormalities — highlighted the danger of failing to abolish capital punishment.

Thailand is one of eight countries in Southeast Asia in which the death penalty remains on the books. Though it has been seven years since the last execution was carried out, there are 444 people currently on death row, according to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

In a report issued last month, FIDH said the region overall had "witnessed significant setbacks with regard to the abolition of the death penalty."

Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have carried out multiple executions in the past year, while the Philippines is considering reinstating capital punishment.

Though Thailand is considered close to attaining de facto abolition (as it has not carried out any death sentences in more than five years), it has not "made any attempt to decrease the number of crimes punishable by death."

While leaders — including Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha — have argued that the death penalty serves a useful deterrent, there is little to back such claims.

In a statement, FIDH Deputy-Secretary General Florence Bellivier pointed out that using the death penalty is merely a quick fix for governments who want to show they are tough on crime.

"The reality is that the death penalty has no deterrent effect on the commission of crimes, particularly those that are drug-related or alleged acts of terrorism," said Bellivier.

As for the two Myanmar men, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, they have little to do but wait.

"They know that it takes time, a long time," said Nakhon. "[They're] rather hopeless but they try to adapt themselves."

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