A court in Thailand on Thursday convicted two migrant workers from Myanmar for killing a young British couple on a resort island.
Zai Lin and Wai Phyo were sentenced to death. Their lawyers say they will appeal the verdict.
Human rights groups have called for an independent investigation amid widespread allegations that the evidence used to link the two suspects to the killings was insufficient or tainted.
“We've now got the families of the murder victims still waiting to hear exactly what's happened to their loved ones. But now additionally we have the families of these two suspects who are looking to the Thai judicial system to provide them justice. And that's something that's very crucial for Thailand's international standing, too,” said Sam Zarifi, Asia regional director for the International Commission of Jurists.
Shocking killings on scenic island
The two suspects from Myanmar had retracted confessions of killing Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on the Thai island of Koh Tao in September, 2014.
The defendants, both 22 year-old workers at a bar on the island, were arrested two weeks after the killings at a time of intense news coverage of the brutal killings on a small scenic island that has long been a magnet for foreign tourists. They claim they were tortured into giving confessions, as well as threatened with death by interrogators. Police have denied any coercion.
FILE - Two workers from Myanmar (wearing helmets and handcuffs), suspected of killing two British tourists on the island of Koh Tao last month, stand near Thai police officers during a re-enactment of the alleged crime.
Both of the victims suffered head wounds and a coroner said Witheridge had been raped, for which an additional 20 year sentence was imposed by the judges.
Reports in the British media said the couple had been in a quarrel with some island residents on the night they were killed. That led to speculation that influential members of the Koh Tao community may have been involved in their deaths.
Widely criticized investigation
The subsequent police investigation was labeled a farce amid intense pressure on authorities to solve the case which had tarnished Thailand's image as relatively safe tourism destination.
A prominent Thai forensic scientist testified that DNA taken from the suspects did not match samples taken from the garden hoe said to be the murder weapon.
“I wouldn't say I am optimistic but I wouldn't be surprised if there would be a reversal of certain aspects of this case, as it is a death penalty and, therefore, it's expected to go all the way to the Supreme Court,” Zarifi told VOA shortly after the verdict. “We have seen several high-profile cases where lower court verdicts were set aside precisely on grounds of questionability of the evidence.”
May Thein, center, the mother of Myanmar migrant Win Zaw Htun, is overcome with emotion after his guilty verdict at court in Koh Samui, Thailand, Thursday, Dec. 24, 2015.
The family of victim David Miller said in a statement that the "correct verdict" had been rendered.
"We believe that the results today represent justice for David and Hannah," said Michael Miller in front of the court house.
A post-verdict statement issued by Witheridge family said its members "found listening to the proceedings very challenging and we have had to endure a lot of painful and confusing information. We now need time, as a family, to digest the outcome of the trial and figure out the most appropriate way to tell our story."
Hundreds of people are on death row in Thailand but the country has not executed anyone since 2009.
Human rights groups say it is not unusual for migrant workers in Thailand to be wrongly charged with crimes.
The kingdom hosts an estimated three million such workers – most of them from Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.