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Thai trial opens for 2 accused of killing British tourists

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KOH SAMUI, Thailand >> Ten months after two British tourists were killed on a resort island in Thailand, prosecutors were to call their first witnesses Wednesday in a case marked by claims that the accused — two migrants from Myanmar — were tortured into confessing.

Following widespread attention, the case has been called a test of Thailand’s justice system.

The battered bodies of David Miller, 24, and Hannah Witheridge, 23, were found Sept. 15 on the rocky shores of Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand known for its world-class scuba diving. Autopsies showed that the young backpackers, who had met on the island while staying at the same hotel, had both suffered severe head wounds and Witheridge had been raped.

Two migrant workers from Myanmar were indicted on several charges related to the murders, and prosecutors say they have a solid case against them that includes DNA evidence linking them to the crime.

The two men — Win Zaw Htun and Zaw Lin, both 22 — were arrested in early October and initially confessed to the killings but then retracted their statements saying they were extracted through beatings and threats, which police deny. Human rights groups repeatedly called for an independent investigation and raised concerns the men might be scapegoats.

The trial is being held on the island of Koh Samui, which is near Koh Tao, and was scheduled to begin with the prosecution calling witnesses who first found the victims’ bodies in the early hours of Sept 15.

From the start, investigating police faced a variety of criticism, including their failure to secure the crime scene and releasing several names and pictures of suspects who turned out to be innocent.

Under intense pressure to solve the case, which drew global attention, police carried out DNA tests on more than 200 people on the island.

Concern that the men were tortured by police originated with advocates for migrant workers, who are often abused and mistreated without the safeguard of rights held by Thai citizens. But the allegations caught the attention of the British government, which expressed concern to Thai authorities about the way the investigation was conducted. As a result, British police were allowed to observe the case assembled by their Thai counterparts.

About 2.5 million people from Myanmar work in Thailand, most as domestic servants or in low-skilled manual labor industries like construction, fisheries or the garment sector.

The gruesome killings tarnished the image of Thailand’s tourism industry, which has been struggling to recover after the army staged a coup in and imposed martial law in May 2014.

Associated Press Writer Jocelyn Gecker contributed to this report from Bangkok.

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