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Tourists need to be warned of perils on “Death Island” Koh Tao and not given a false sense of security by lazy journalists

By Ian Yarwood (Australian lawyer)

On Friday, 3 March 2017 the Samui Times reported that a 23 year-old Russian girl, Valentina Novozhenova had vanished from Koh Tao and had not been seen or heard from since 15 February 2017.

Many have wondered why it apparently took over two weeks before any sort of search or investigation was instigated by authorities on Koh Tao.

News services, large and small, from Britain to Europe to Australia and Asia have since reported on Valentina’s disappearance.  Many international reports have referred to Koh Tao as “Death Island” in light of the many murders and mysterious deaths of tourists recorded on the island in recent years.

Just two days earlier we learned that an appeal against a “controversial” 24 December 2015 judgment of The Samui Provincial Court had been dismissed.  The case to which I refer is that in which Burmese migrant workers, Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were convicted for the rape of Hannah Witheridge and for the murders of Hannah Witheridge and David Miller on Sairee Beach, Koh Tao on 15 September 2014.

It is understood that the appeal was determined by the same judges who delivered the judgment but I will be pleased to be corrected if that is untrue.  The appeal had actually been dismissed a week earlier but the defendants’ lawyers did not learn of the outcome until seeing a news report on Thai television.  At the time of writing, few other details about the decision of the appeal court have been made public.

Several British news services reported on the dismissal of the appeal but unfortunately some have happily quoted the family of David Miller who have expressed the clear opinion that the Burmese defendants are guilty as charged.  In contrast, Hannah’s brave sister, Laura Witheridge was publicly critical of the Thai police investigation.

Also in contrast to the Millers, most observers formed the view that the Burmese were being used as mere scapegoats to protect some influential Thais and a lucrative tourist industry.  With the greatest respect to the court, my own considered opinion is that the DNA evidence allegedly taken from Hannah’s body and relied upon to convict the Burmese should never have been admitted into evidence given fatal flaws in its collection and analysis and because of a complete lack of any chain of custody.  I previously wrote a short piece about the DNA evidence which was published in the Samui Times on 1 December 2016  http://www.samuitimes.com/police-trump-card-in-koh-tao-murders-case-is-just-a-bad-joke-raises-serious-concerns-about-police-lab-and-scientific-testing-in-thailand/

Earlier articles were written by:

Jonathan Head of the BBC http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-35170419 (Thailand Beach Murders: A flawed and muddled investigation, 24 December 2015);

and by Lindsay Murdoch of the Fairfax Press http://www.smh.com.au/world/australian-scientist-jane-taupin-questions-koh-tao-death-penalty-evidence-20160106-gm05af.html

(Australian scientist Jane Taupin questions Koh Tao death penalty evidence, 7 January 2016)

Any reasonable reader of those three articles should have serious doubts that the two Burmese men had anything to do with the crimes against Hannah and David.

It is indeed unfortunate that some British media have quoted the opinions of the Millers without referring to the serious flaws in the prosecution case and without referring to a string of other crimes on the island.  It is not just lazy and unfortunate, it is dangerous.  A casual reader of the lazy media reports might reasonably conclude – incorrectly – that the killers of Hannah and David are in prison and that all is safe and well to plan a vacation on Koh Tao.

Koh Tao can be paradise but it can also be extremely dangerous for the unwary.  Potential tourists to that island need to be warned and not given a sense of false security by lazy members of the British press.

The Miller family is grieving the loss of David and I have no wish to unduly upset them.  However, in the interests of warning others I wrote a piece in February 2016 in which I discuss some of the reasons why the opinions expressed by David’s brother, Michael Miller on the steps of the court are flawed: https://www.change.org/p/david-cameron-independently-investigate-the-horrific-murders-of-hannah-witheridge-and-david-miller/u/15385598

There is a wealth of information available on recent crimes on Koh Tao that can be accessed by a Google search.  I recommend articles from Time ie: http://time.com/3955081/thailand-koh-tao-murder-david-miller-hannah-witheridge-zaw-lin-wai-phyo-burma-myanmar/ and the informative (if imperfect) Channel 4 documentary “Murder in Paradise” https://vimeo.com/163781696




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