Athit Perawongmetha / Reuters

Thai court finds Myanmar migrants guilty of killing UK couple

A Thai court sentenced two Myanmar migrants to death for killing of David Miller and Hannah Witheridege in 2014

A Thai court has sentenced two Myanmar migrants to death for murdering two British backpackers on a resort island last year.

In its ruling Thursday, the court said it found Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin, both 22, guilty of killing David Miller, 24, and raping then murdering Hannah Witheridege, 23, last year on the island of Koh Tao.

Hannah Witheridge and David Miller

Andy Hall, an activist working with the defense team, said the two men were found guilty on all counts. The pair faces the death penalty, but they are expected to appeal.

Human Rights Watch called the verdict "profoundly disturbing," citing the defendants' accusations of police torture that were never investigated and questionable DNA evidence linking them to the crime.

The battered bodies of Miller and Witheridge were found Sept. 15, 2014. Autopsies showed that the young backpackers had both suffered severe head wounds and that Witheridge had been raped.

Following weeks of pressure to solve the case, police arrested the Myanmar migrant workers and later said the two had confessed to the crimes before they were charged.

The verdict and sentence follow an investigation and trial that triggered allegations of police incompetence, mishandling of evidence and torture of the suspects. Both later retracted their confessions saying they had been made under duress.

The long-awaited verdicts came after 21 days of witness hearings in a trial that began in July and ended in October. Allegations by defense lawyers of police incompetence and evidence mishandling dominated the trial.

As is customary in Thailand, where trials have no jury, a judge delivered the verdict and sentence and said the DNA tests by investigators were carried out to accepted standards and the DNA found on Witheridge matched that of the defendants.

The judge said there was no weight to the two men's claims that they had been tortured.

Hall said the defense team was surprised by the sentence and that volunteers would continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the two men.

The killings tarnished the image of Thailand's tourism industry, which was already struggling to recover after the army staged a coup just months earlier in May 2014 and then imposed martial law.

And from the arrests to the trial, the killings also raised serious questions about Thailand’s treatment of migrant workers. About 2.5 million people from Myanmar work in Thailand, most as domestic servants or in low-skilled manual jobs such as construction, fisheries or the garment sector. Migrants are often abused and mistreated without the safeguard of rights held by Thai citizens.

Police were widely accused of bungling the investigation, including failing to close off the island quickly and allowing potential suspects to escape.

A debate over DNA samples that police say link the two suspects to Witheridge's body was at the heart of the trial.

Defense lawyers had asked to retest crucial DNA samples taken from the bodies but authorities issued conflicting statements on DNA evidence and, at one point, said that it had been used up.

No independent re-testing of DNA evidence has been done in the case.

Wire services

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter