Thai court rejects migrants' appeals in killings of 2 Brits

BANGKOK — A Thai court rejected the appeal of two Myanmar migrants sentenced to death for the murders of a pair of British backpackers, the defense team said Wednesday after learning of the verdict a week after it was rendered.

The bodies of David Miller and Hannah Witheridge were found in 2014 on the shore of Koh Tao, a resort island in the Gulf of Thailand famed for blue waters and white sand.

Their deaths threatened to tarnish Thailand's vital tourism industry, putting massive pressure on police to solve the case. The investigation was mired on controversy from the beginning.

Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin, both in their early 20s, were arrested some two weeks later after other suspects were shown to be innocent. They confessed under interrogation, but retracted those statements, testifying that they were tortured, beaten, and threatened with death if they didn't confess to the killings. The case hinged on DNA evidence that Thailand's top forensics scientist called seriously flawed. But police insisted the evidence was solid, and the two migrants were convicted in 2015.

"I'm incredibly disappointed that this verdict was upheld," said Andy Hall, an international affairs adviser to lawyers defending the men. "We were confident that the appeals court would dismiss the case, because there's so many irregularities."

The appeal verdict was dated Feb. 23 but defense lawyers weren't informed or present at the hearing. They only found out Wednesday morning from TV, Hall said.

"We're very shocked at this and it raises a lot of questions about the rule of law because we weren't informed," Hall said. "We were expecting a decision at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year."

The court immediately drew criticism for both its decision and for the way it was delivered.

"It's astonishing that this verdict was rendered days ago in secret without the defense team present, and shameful that Thailand has sentenced them to death," said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch.

The defense plans to file an appeal to Thailand's Supreme Court, where a final decision will be made.

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