The family of Hannah Witheridge, a young woman murdered in Thailand on Sept. 15 along with her traveling companion, is pleading for justice as two Burmese immigrants who originally confessed last week are now retracting their statements. The bodies of Witheridge and her friend David Miller, both British tourists traveling together, were found on the beach of the island of Koh Tao.
Before Witheridge’s funeral the family released a statement expressing how difficult the last three weeks have been and how their thoughts are also with Miller’s family, who is going through the same grief and agony. The statement concludes with their wish that the “right people are found and brought to justice.”
The investigation has been dogged by allegations of abuse and torture by the police, as well as mishandling and corruption. While Thai police assert that not only did the Burmese migrants, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, confess but DNA evidence has linked them to the crime with matches found on Witheridge’s body. However, human rights activists have now met with the UK ambassador in Bangkok to express concerns regarding abuse and mistreatment of the migrant suspects, expressing concerns that their confessions were made under duress.
While Witheridge’s family pleads for justice, a group of Burmese workers in Thailand have issued a statement demanding an independent investigation into the murders. The statement states that they simply “do not trust” that the Koh Tao police can conduct an unbiased and transparent investigation. It says the men are being used as scapegoats and are not receiving due process.
Initially the police were investigating 12 different suspects, including two friends of David Miller, but DNA matches were not made on any of them. The police also circulated a photograph of a migrant worker seen on a security video and it has been reported that up until Oct. 1, the day before Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin were arrested for the murders, police tried to bribe a taxi driver into falsely accusing a group of footballers. They reportedly beat the taxi driver when he refused to be bribed.
Police now claim that DNA belonging to Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun from cigarette butts found nearby match DNA found on Witheridge’s body. However, they did not involve a forensic pathologist in the collection and analysis of the DNA, which has been highly criticized. A third person, Muang Muang, the suspects’ friend, claims that he was with his friends on the beach until 1 a.m. but he left to visit his girlfriend. While video surveillance of the three friends riding their bikes to a store to purchase alcohol and cigarettes as well as a third cigarette butt with Muang’s DNA being found alongside the others appears to corroborate Muang’s version of events, the evidence is circumstantial and does not necessarily prove the men committed the murder, critics argue.
The police also claim that Miller’s cell phone was found at one of the suspect’s homes, but critics of the investigation state that the phone was smashed and the suspect would not have done that since he could have sold it for a large sum of money in Thailand. Also, critics point out that the suspect would not keep such an incriminating piece of evidence in his home.
The murders have struck a chord around the world, receiving attention and often called the “Backpacker murders” or “Thailand beach murders.” Friends of Witheridge mourned her “vivacious” personality and described her as beautiful, vibrant and fun. Miller’s friends have also expressed their grief over the loss of their friend, stating on a Facebook page set up in the victims’ honor that Miller “always had a smile” on his face.
It has been reported that Miller died from blows to the head and eventual drowning. Witheridge is believed to have died from severe head wounds and police claim she was sexually assaulted. At this point, Hannah Witheridge’s family simply want to know who is responsible for the murder of their daughter and her friend, and plead with authorities and the public in Thailand to bring that person or those people to justice.
By Jennifer Fernicola Ronay